Holding company chiefs speak out on travel bans, while PR firms help corporate America grapple with its public response.
NEW YORK — Public relations firms are counselling both clients and employees as they respond to President Trump's travel ban prohibiting entry of migrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries.
Several American companies, particularly from the tech sector, have already spoken out against the ban, with some reinforcing their words with action. Starbucks plans to hire 10,000 refugees, for example, while both Amazon and Google are supporting legal challenges. Airbnb, meanwhile, has offered free housing to refugees and travelers.
Business leaders have become increasingly engaged with political issues in recent years, a recurring theme for the public relations firms that counsel them. With companies like PayPal openly touting their "moral obligation to be a force for good", expectations that they will oppose issues like the travel ban have risen.
Research from Weber Shandwick, for example, found that nearly 40% of American adults believe it is a CEO’s duty to engage with and speak out on hot-button issues. "The recent immigration ban has galvanised certain sectors to speak up," says the firm's chief reputation strategist Leslie Gaines-Ross. "There seems to be an increase but, by no means is every Fortune 500 CEO publicly speaking out. It’s still a select segment. We’ll see whether this goes from a groundswell to a real movement."
Gaines-Ross, who has been tracking CEO communications for years, admits that the pace of this groundswell has taken her by surprise. "What’s happened is employees and customers and vendors are holding their leaders accountable for what they have said," she explains. "There is definitely pressure on CEOs to defend those values which include — for a large part — diversity and inclusion."
That means increased demand for PR agency counsel, says Gaines-Ross and other agency heads, who note that numerous clients are seeking advice on how best to publicly respond to the age of Trump.
There are probably also questions over whether agencies can — realistically — provide reliable advice in such an unpredictable environment. For example, WE Communications president Alan VanderMolen calls the government and regulatory landscape "unprecedented", putting a premium on public affairs insight at a time when few appear to have the answers.
"Never has understanding policy and the management of government affairs and regulatory affairs been more important," he points out. "You're going to see a lot of MNCs adopting the same views on policy decisions and executive orders. So there is a real focus on the integration of public affairs and marketing into communications in ways we’ve never imagined."
After last year's Brexit vote, many public affairs firms reported an uptick in business. In the same vein, Trump's travel ban is already seeing many companies consider their stance in light of their key stakeholders — starting with employees, but also including customers, investors and, of course, government.
"It’s interesting to me that our industry is in the thick of it," says Gaines-Ross. "It’s using the same muscles we’ve always used in terms of crises-preparedness but the timeline is infinitely smaller, and it feels like a more high-stakes environment."
While those stakes are undoubtedly higher, the core advice to clients is becoming increasingly simple, says Levick Strategic Communications chief Richard Levick. "Our counsel [before the ban] was to genuflect," he notes. "After the events of Friday night, the playbook that seemed so complex a few days ago is so simple. It is far better to stand up for your values — with Ford, Goldman Sachs and Koch Industries to your left, you are probably safe."
Meanwhile, holding groups and agencies are considering these same strategies as businesses themselves. The heads of WPP, Omnicom and Interpublic all spoke out against the ban yesterday, while Richard Edelman was not alone among PR heads in issuing a memo to staff.
"It is important that you know whatever your country of origin, race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, age or ideology, Edelman views diversity and inclusion as fundamental to making our company a dynamic place to work — a place where all our employees are welcome," notes Edelman in the email, before detailing the company's HR support and travel policies.
Weber Shandwick CEO Andy Polansky struck a similar note after telling the Holmes Report that his "first priority is to protect our people and make sure they are always safe and feel safe".
"Companies operating in today’s environment rely on a free flow of talent," said Polansky. "Ours is an industry that thrives on people who have different perspectives and points of view regardless of their religious beliefs, country or ethnicity. That’s one of the many things that makes it a great industry."
Despite seeing "no immediate impact", WPP CEO Sir Martin Sorrell admitted to concern about the ban "on innocent people generally", and pointed to his own immigrant heritage. "As the grandson of Eastern European grandparents, who were admitted to the UK in the very late 19th and early 20th centuries, I have an instinctive dislike of such measures."
In a note to staff, WE Communications CEO Melissa Waggener Zorkin admitted she was "troubled by the events that are happening in our world," before calling on the firm's employees to "support the values you hold dear."
"It is evident that our current political climate is unpredictable, and it is unclear how the landscape will evolve or change over the next several weeks and months," said Waggener Zorkin. "Regardless of social, economic and political affiliations and interests, global citizens will be called to exercise a new level of personal leadership, resilience and courage. With optimism, I encourage you to support the values that you hold dear. Whether that is using your voice, donating to a worthy organization or organized demonstration — do what means most to you."