In 2019, when Georgia passed a law that banned abortion after a baby’s heartbeat can be detected, a number of high-profile businesses spoke out against it. Executives at companies like Coca-Cola and Amazon went so far as to put their names on a widely-publicized letter to GOP Governor Brian Kemp, warning that the legislation would take the state “in the wrong direction.” Since then, corporations speaking out on controversial topics has become a common occurrence.
But according to an internal email obtained by the independent newsletter Popular Information, one of the nation’s top public relations firms is now telling companies that politics and business don’t mix, especially when it comes to hot-button issues like abortion.
Zeno, a firm that represents such blue-chip brands as Starbucks, Coca-Cola, Pizza Hut, and AT&T is advising clients not to weigh in on a leaked draft of a Supreme Court opinion that would overturn Roe v. Wade.
Warning that abortion is a “textbook 50/50 issue,” Executive Vice President for Media Strategy Katie Cwayna says in the email template, drafted to share with clients, that “subjects that divide the country can sometimes be no-win situations for companies because regardless of what they do they will alienate at least 15 to 30 percent of their stakeholders.” She then cautions companies, “Do not assume that all of your employees, customers or investors share your view.”
The message specifically warns that the media will try to coerce businesses to speak out on the issue of abortion and says it would be a mistake to give in to that pressure.
When it comes to the loud voices on social media who demand that companies take a stand on the draft SCOTUS opinion, the firm offers much the same advice, saying, “Do not engage with direct questions about your company’s position. Whether in direct messages or public-facing posts, do not respond to questions about where your company stands on this issue.”
Elements within the Popular Information report suggest author Judd Legum’s purpose in writing it is to contribute to both the media and social media pressure big companies will feel to take a stand against overturning Roe.
In the article, Legum, who previously ran the leftwing news site ThinkProgress and worked for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, equates “women’s rights” with being pro-abortion. He implies Zeno’s advice is hypocritical because in the past the company has released generic statements cheering women’s equality, but is unwilling to condemn the SCOTUS draft. He writes:
In a March 2021 statement posted to its corporate website, Zeno said that everyone must make “a commitment to a gender equal world” and that includes “speaking up in the face of inequality”…
Now, with the constitutional rights of women in grave danger, Zeno is giving their clients — which also include Kia Motors, Astra-Zeneca, AT&T, ASICS, Scotts Miracle-Gro, Phillips Health, Corona, Pizza Hut, Prudential, and Leveno — the opposite advice. If Edelman and other PR firms are doling out similar recommendations, it may explain why so few companies that publicly champion women’s rights have spoken out about the expected repeal of Roe.
Recent big business cautionary tales, however, suggest that companies that want to avoid angering their customers by taking sides on controversial subjects would do well to follow Zeno’s advice.
Since leftwing activists successfully pressured Disney to take a public stand against a Florida law that prevents public schools from speaking to children about sexuality and gender identity before fourth grade, the company has weathered a storm of negative press and faced boycotts from parents. CEO Bob Chapek’s pledge to fight to overturn the law also cost the company government perks like a special tax district in the Orlando area where its Disney World theme park is located.
Additionally, Disney’s stock has fallen roughly 19% since March, when it first reversed its initial policy of staying out of politics.