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Messaging in an Age of Corporate Political Activity

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As an international communication researcher who teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in corporate communication and public relations, I try to give students the benefit of my research into corporate social responsibility and stakeholder engagement, investor relations/shareholder activism and public diplomacy by nongovernmental entities. These emerging communication models have great implications for the relationships between organizations—nonprofit, for-profit and governmental—and their stakeholders.

Corporations have already made inroads into social activism through such tactics such as corporate social responsibility, public policy engagement, corporate advocacy and responsible lobbying. Now, many companies have expanded their efforts to affect public policy decisions through corporate political activities. For example, the Walmart Political Action Committee spent more than $2 million to influence the political process in three of the last five federal election cycles, according to claims by a union-backed coalition pushing for more rights for Walmart workers. In 2017, controversy erupted when it was disclosed that L.L. Bean had given thousands of dollars to a political action committee supporting Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.

I wanted to understand the social and political value corporations place on their corporate political activities. Specifically, I wanted to learn how corporations communicate their political activities to stakeholders and how they define the scope of their corporate political activities.

To gain this understanding, I reviewed a random sample of websites belonging to 100 corporations that were part of the 2018 U.S. Fortune 500. The websites qualified for study if they communicated corporate political activities, including political relationships and/or contributions, and provided a rationale for these activities. I obtained political contribution data from the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), which provides data that can be used to gauge political activism, including campaign finance and lobbying.

My findings suggest that corporations largely conform with each other on the scope of their political activities and the reasons behind them. Their communication also conforms in terms of the types of political activities in which they are involved and the beneficiaries of their activities.

Collectively, the companies in this study framed corporate political responsibility as a right and duty of citizenship, emphasizing their role as legitimate corporate citizens in a democratic society. I argue that corporations strategically blur the line between corporate political activity and corporate social responsibility.

Below is an example of how one corporation equates social responsibility with political activity and legitimizes its participation in shaping public policy:

“ExxonMobil believes that registering and voting, keeping informed on political matters, serving in civic bodies and campaigning and office-holding at local, state and national levels are important rights and responsibilities of the citizens of a democracy.”

The increased activist role corporations are playing in global and national governance is redefining the relationship between business and society. I believe there should be more research examining corporations’ efforts to legitimize their growing political influence in society.

Nur Uysal is an associate professor of public relations and corporate communication.

Originally published in Conversations (Fall 2020).