Dick’s, Delta, and the Changing Nature of Corporate Social Responsibility

By Mjs92984 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

March 6, 2018; Washington Post

When Edward Stack, the CEO of Dick’s Sporting Goods, declared that his stores would no longer sell assault weapons and would implement an age limit on gun sales, he also made a strong statement to lawmakers, imploring them to enact the same types of “common sense” gun regulations. Although he and his company have received some pushback, Stack is seen as part of a new wave of CEO activists who are willing to take decisive stands on social issues.

“You don’t normally hear a company articulate these things—they usually do it through lobbying support,” said Anthony Johndrow, a New York-based adviser to companies on corporate reputation. “The first phase is just to state an opinion, the second phase is to take action at the company, and the third phase is maybe to call on the government to do something.” This positioning not only withdraws the company from the undesirable, but affirmatively aligns them with a values set that they are betting will be increasingly attractive.

Writing for the Washington Post, Jena McGregor observes that “those who follow the interaction between social issues and corporate activism said Stack’s memo was notable for its inclusion of distinct solutions.”

On the other hand, Delta, which eliminated its practically unused discount for NRA members, has taken the tack of denying that it is taking sides even as Georgia has punished it with the elimination of a long-planned tax break. Now, it is making an even more blanket statement of neutrality in all things. CEO Ed Bastian writes that “While Delta’s intent was to remain neutral, some elected officials in Georgia tied our decision to a pending jet fuel tax exemption, threatening to eliminate it unless we reversed course. Our decision was not made for economic gain and our values are not for sale. We are in the process of a review to end group discounts for any group of a politically divisive nature.”

Clearly, these are two very different approaches, leaving one corporation looking strong and the other like a rabbit surprised in the garden. “In the past, the advocacy around an issue by the CEO or their leadership team may have been limited to participation in an amicus brief or inclusive HR policies,” said Chris Allieri, principal of communications at brand consultancy Mulberry & Astor. “This is not a time for companies to split hairs and craft carefully worded press statements.”—Ruth McCambridge