Editor’s Note: Kara Alaimo, an assistant professor of public relations at Hofstra University, is the author of “Pitch, Tweet, or Engage on the Street: How to Practice Global Public Relations and Strategic Communication.” She was a spokeswoman for international affairs in the Treasury Department during the Obama administration. Follow her on Twitter @karaalaimo. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
On Wednesday, Dick’s Sporting Goods announced in a letter from its chairman and CEO, Edward Stack, that it will stop selling weapons like the rifle used in the shooting at a Parkland, Florida, high school on February 14. The company is no longer going to sell assault-style rifles or high capacity magazines and won’t sell any firearms to people who are under the age of 21. In eloquent language, Stack also called on lawmakers to enact gun reform so other companies do the same.
This isn’t the first time Dick’s has weighed in on this debate. Dick’s previously earned plaudits when it temporarily stopped selling assault rifles after the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School – and then criticism when it later opened a chain called Field & Stream that sold them.
But today’s letter may be a signal of something different, and I hope other CEOs are taking notes. “We have tremendous respect and admiration for the students organizing and making their voices heard regarding gun violence in schools and elsewhere in our country,” said Stack. “We have heard you. The nation has heard you. We support and respect the Second Amendment, and we recognize and appreciate that the vast majority of gun owners in this country are responsible, law-abiding citizens. But we have to help solve the problem that’s in front of us.” Stack has also disclosed that the Parkland killer bought a shotgun at one of his stores in November – though it wasn’t the gun used in the school massacre.
If more CEOs follow Stack’s lead, they’re likely to not just boost their businesses, but also finally catalyze the changes in gun laws that are so long overdue in America. New research shows that corporate leaders have extraordinary power to sway public opinion on important issues. A study by Weber Shandwick, one of the world’s largest communications firms, last year found that the majority of Americans – 74% of millennials, 63% of Gen Xers and 55% of baby boomers – have actually taken action because of a chief executive’s position on an issue.
Today, Americans expect businesses to practice corporate social responsibility. This means acting as good citizens. A Cone Communications study published in May found that the majority of Americans both buy from and boycott companies based on their stances on pressing social issues. This has become a much bigger priority for consumers in recent years. For comparison, in a 1993 study by the same group, 66% of Americans said they’d switch brands to buy from a company associated with a good cause. Today, 89% say they would do so. And 63% of Americans now say they hope businesses will drive future change on social and environmental issues.
When it comes to corporate social responsibility, great businesses do two things. First, they keep their fingers on the pulse of the national mood and respond accordingly. Dick’s is right to be listening to the nation’s students who are demanding change. As Stack said, “If these kids are brave enough to organize and do what they’re doing, we should be brave enough to take this stand. And that’s what we’ve done.” He’ll get bonus points for his stark language that makes it crystal clear where his company stands on this issue.
Second, great businesses act responsibly in their central areas of business. Dick’s needs to be leading on this issue because it’s relevant to their core business – they sell guns! Companies whose businesses focus not just on firearms but also education and children’s welfare have a moral obligation to speak up and help change gun laws and access to guns in this country.
Of course, speaking up on a social issue can come with repercussions. For example, Republicans in Georgia have threatened to kill a tax provision on jet fuel that would benefit Delta to get back at the company for severing ties with the NRA.
But, from the standpoint of public opinion, weighing in on issues related to a company’s core business is typically a savvy business move. Other research by Weber Shandwick shows that when CEOs take stances on issues that are directly related to their work, they end up with higher favorable ratings.The reputational boost Dick’s will rightly get from this decision could outweigh the revenue losses they’ll see from ending sales of assault weapons or from pushback they might get from NRA members or others who disagree with the stance they’ve taken.
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It’s time for other American CEOs to get on board by reviewing their policies and demanding better laws to protect American kids from gun violence. Yes, it will be good for their businesses. But it would also be one of the most effective ways to bring about the change this country desperately needs.