Fallout from the Parkland shootings has shown how business and politics can be like trying to mix flammable oil and water. At the same time, a number of businesses have surveyed the political commotion and taken stands they are betting will preserve their long-term reputations.
Emotionally raw and articulate pleas to “protect your children” by Parkland student survivors have altered the normal arc of gun violence debates after a mass shooting. Edward Stack, CEO of Dick’s Sporting Goods, attributed his announcement to end sales of assault rifles and install a policy of only selling guns to persons 21 years or older to student outcries. “We love these kids and their rallying cry, ‘Enough is enough.’ It got to us,” Stack said.
Dick’s announcement led to similar changes at Walmart, Kroger and L.L. Bean. REI said it no longer would sell products distributed by Vista Outdoor, which owns gun manufacturer Savage Arms.
However, the real shootout occurred when a host of businesses said they were dropping their affiliation with the National Rifle Association after its response to the Parkland shootings, which include a call to arm schoolteachers. Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines was among the first to dump the NRA and found itself immediately at odds with the Georgia legislature, which passed a bill to ditch a $38 million tax break for the airline.
Delta CEO Ed Bastian said the airline won’t be intimidated. “Our values are not for sale,” he wrote in a memo to Delta employees. Georgia House Speaker Dave Ralston confirmed Delta’s tax break was grounded because it ended its NRA-member discount program. “I hope they [Delta] are better at flying airplanes than timing PR announcements,” Ralston said.
The unilateral policy changes of major gun retailers and the moves by a wide range of companies to disassociate from a lightning rod special interest group raise the age-old question of whether business should engage in politics. It also points out that business decisions can be political, whether intended or not.
Offering airfare discounts or special credit cards to an organization with a hefty-sized membership such as the NRA can appear at first glance like a smart business move. In reality, giving discounts to people associated with a special interest group has an intrinsic political connection, whether the group is the NRA or AARP. If a business didn’t want to become enmeshed in politics, it should have made that decision before offering special deals to groups deeply involved in politics.
The businesses that decided to distance themselves from the NRA did so because of its political stand in response to the Parkland shooting and gun violence more generally, even though many individual NRA members who stand to lose a perk may not agree with the organization’s controversial views. Those businesses will need to live with the economic consequences – lost sales and, in Delta’s case, the loss of a $38 million tax break.
In his defense of breaking ties with the NRA, Delta’s Bastian said the airline is reviewing all group discounts to “any group with a politically divisive nature.” Good luck in making those distinctions, but it is a start toward thinking about the reputation of an enterprise. Consumers expect businesses, especially larger corporations, to act with conscience, not just for profit. The Parkland shooting served as an inflection point for many business and organizations to rethink their own policies and associations. That took some guts and earned some goodwill.
A terrific byproduct of this latest business-and-politics go-round would be a widespread, sustained movement by businesses to assess how they can use their economic power and leverage to address significant social issues – from encouraging citizens to vote to taking the lead in harnessing the energy and experience of America’s older adults who have retired, but still have a lot to contribute. Incentives to encourage voting, promote the arts in school or capture the expertise of older adults would be tapping into pretty large pools of people. This kind of engagement may be centered more in corporate social responsibility than membership discounts, but the payoff could be larger, especially when it comes to reputation.