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Decrying Election Violence Is Latest Pressure on Industry to Speak Up

Business interests in the communications and tech universe that decried the Jan. 6 Capitol Hill violence (see 2101060057) and froze political action committee giving (see 2101110062) likely wouldn't have felt so compelled to do so a few years ago, crisis communications experts told us. They said it's increasingly a norm for businesses to speak up, even on issues in which they aren't directly involved. Agency officials like FCC commissioners aren't under similar pressures and express their opinions more out of personal convictions, said Texas A&M communications professor Timothy Coombs.

Jan. 6 might change how agency officials react to future crises, said Gemma Puglisi, an American University assistant communications professor. FCC members are generally barred from expressing views except on issues that involve a “clear and present danger of serious, substantial evil” but now might feel compelled to come up with a crisis response plan, she said: “They have to come back and say, ‘How do we communicate this?’ when we see something so horrible like this.”

Among commissioners, Brendan Carr was quickest to react Jan. 6, tweeting at 1:29 p.m. EST. "Mob violence is never, ever acceptable." Ajit Pai, then chairman, tweeted at 3:26 p.m. and also retweeted then-Vice President Mike Pence. Jessica Rosenworcel at 4:49 p.m. called it "such a sad day." Nathan Simington made a statement about 30 hours after the riot began (see 2101070026). Geoffrey Starks never posted a statement and commented to us about 48 hours after the violence. His office didn't comment. None of the FTC commissioners made public statements Jan. 6 on the day's events.

NCTA Chairman Michael Powell was among the earliest in industry to speak out on Jan. 6, tweeting at 3:58 p.m. "The storming of the Capitol is something I could not imagine in my wildest imagination. Nothing is more important to our country than a working democracy and what we are witnessing today is a bleak moment in our history." NCTA retweeted him. The Business Roundtable, whose membership includes Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Apple CEO Tim Cook and Comcast CEO Brian Roberts (see personals section, this issue), was on Powell's heels with a statement at 4:05 p.m., followed by U.S. Chamber of Commerce CEO Tom Donohue at 4:30. NAB issued a statement at 5:20 p.m.

ACA Connects President Matt Polka called for an end to the violence in a tweet at 5:59 p.m. Apple's Cook at 8:21 p.m. tweeted about "a sad and shameful chapter in our nation’s history" and said, "Those responsible for this insurrection should be held to account, and we must complete the transition to President-elect Biden’s administration." At 8:32 p.m., Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg retweeted the Business Roundtable statement, adding that the company "support[s] the right for peaceful protests" but "condemn[s] the violence and rioting occurring in the nation's capital." SpaceX founder Elon Musk retweeted a meme at 11:06 p.m. that seemed to lay blame for the violence on Facebook. AT&T issued a statement from CEO John Stankey on Jan. 7.

Condemnation from commissioners might have been more forceful had they issued a joint statement, Puglisi said. “They should’ve come out and said something” together, but it’s more likely that individual commissioners wanted to issue their own statements right away, she said. “I think they got pressured by all these telecommunications agencies and organizations that immediately spoke out. That was a call to them,” Puglisi said. From a communications standpoint, there may have been some scrambling to figure out what to say because of the unprecedented nature of the attack. Generally, organizations take into consideration that their audience has an interest in hearing what that organization has to say before issuing any statement, said Anthony D’Angelo, a professor of practice in communications management at Syracuse University: “Most organizations do have a set of values and a mission, and it’s important that if their sense of those things have been offended, that they speak out.”

Businesses traditionally didn't interject themselves into nonbusiness issues, but that has changed over the past three to five years due to an expectation that they chime in as part of corporate social responsibility, Texas A&M's Coombs said. The pressure increased with the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements, with heavy expectations for companies to speak out quickly and with specificity, he said: "It's a type of risk management. Not speaking has more downsides than speaking."

With decreasing trust in the government and media, expectations are falling on businesses, as powerful societal influencers, said Sun Young Lee, University of Maryland assistant communications professor. She pointed to demands from an increasingly socially conscious consumer base.

The increased expectation that businesses speak out arises from the growth of social media and more interest in social issues from younger people, experts said. They said company statements are crafted to reflect where those businesses think most of their stakeholders stand. There's also an expectation that statements be followed up with concrete action, such as withholding PAC donations, Lee said. Establishing an “issues-monitoring function” could be a radar-screen so when an issue becomes a crisis, there's a more streamlined response and options for actions, said D’Angelo. “If you don’t have a plan before it happens, you’re at a severe disadvantage."

Timeliness is also important when deciding a crisis response, but “not at the risk of a coordinated response” if it's an institutional statement, D’Angelo said. Commissioners can issue statements from their Twitter accounts, he said, but it's important to have some kind of communications strategy, because digital and social media have a global audience with far-reaching implications: “Woe will befall them if they’re working at cross-purposes.”