HR as PR in the Age of Trump

HR as PR in the Age of Trump

Over the past few years, companies have increasingly been pursuing “HR as PR,” which entails using HR strategies to differentiate their organization not only from their talent competitors, but also for customers. The message these companies are sending to customers is: “because we treat our employees well (and therefore have good quality employees), you should buy our product.”

Until now, most HR-as-PR strategies have focused on topics that were not controversial from a consumer perspective: Who would be upset that a company increased the amount of parental leave they offer their employees, or raised entry-level wages?

But when it comes to responding to the policy decisions of the new Trump administration, CEOs and heads of HR are being challenged on what their HR as PR strategy should be and how they should respond to changes in immigration, visas, trade, and other White House initiatives. Many more corporate leaders than usual are choosing to take public stances on contentious political questions, and that has consequences for their organizations and their heads of HR, as Steve Boese remarks:

[O]nce the CEO of the organization takes a public stand on issues as divisive as these, it sets down a kind of organizational culture marker that will be just about impossible to ignore or alter in the future. When the CEO comes down hard in opposition (or support) of these kinds of flash point debates, and if he/she commits organizational resources (time, money, products, services), on one side or another, the message gets pretty clear, pretty fast.

And no matter what side of this (or the next big issue) that the CEO does come down on, (and one last reminder, I am not telling you what I think about this, or what you or your CEO should think), there is almost certainly going to be a cohort of stakeholders, (employees, customers, candidates), that are not going to see eye to eye with your CEO, and by extension, your organization. …

The word ‘divisive’ implies that at least some people are on the other side of that divide from you. And I think we have to be very careful that we don’t forget that. Because the next ‘divisive’ issue might not be so clear cut. It might not be so obvious which side your CEO and your organization should be on, (assuming both of those things matter). The next issue might have very cool-headed, rational, logical people on completely opposite sides. And should both of those kinds of people be welcome in your organization?

Many CEOs have responded to last week’s executive order suspending the entry of refugees and citizens of certain countries into the US with statements to employees stressing their continuing commitment to diversity and in some cases expressing support for more open immigration policies. Some have gone a step further and committed their organizations to specific actions, like Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, who pledged on Sunday to hire 10,000 refugees over five years in 75 countries. As the Washington Post’s Jena McGregor points out, this move is in keeping with Schultz’s reputation as a politically active CEO with a very specific vision of his organization’s culture and values.

But organizations and CEOs need to be careful about their actions here. Schultz’s announcement won Starbucks some applause (and perhaps some patronage) from opponents of the travel ban, but Trump supporters have also called for a boycott. His organization and other companies have not only expressed strong beliefs, but have also followed through on their beliefs and turned them into action. Other CEOs have different beliefs, however, and are choosing to support the Trump administration. Reasonable people can disagree on whether supporting or dissenting against the Trump administration is the right decision for their company, but the point is that once a decision is made, the CEO and the organization must follow through on that decision in terms of actions.

The worst scenario to find yourself in as a CEO is one of tepid support for one point of view or another, and a lack of follow-through on that viewpoint. This approach will disappoint both employees and customers. Those who agree your position will be disappointed because your organization isn’t taking action to back it up, while those who disagree will be disappointed because of what you said (even if your organization isn’t doing anything beyond making statements).

As a business leader, if you are willing to voice an opinion about the current political landscape, you must be ready to follow through on that opinion.