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Column: CEOs say they care about customers and workers. Propaganda experts are unimpressed

Fingers crossed
One researcher called a pledge from nearly 200 CEOs to be more sensitive to others an attempt to obscure reality.
(Igor Stevanovic)

Kenneth Osgood studies propaganda. So he knew what he was seeing when business leaders announced this week that they don’t just care about shareholders — they care about customers, workers and society.

“I raised my eyebrows really high when I saw this,” Osgood, a history professor at Colorado School of Mines, told me.

He said it instantly reminded him of the we’re-all-in-this-together messaging that emerged from corporate America during the Great Depression and New Deal, as a raft of regulations targeted companies’ most egregious and self-serving practices.

“It seems pretty obvious that CEOs are trying to head off growing public pressure on a number of fronts, including how much they’re paid and taxing the rich,” Osgood said.

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“Basically, they’re worried about undoing all the things that the Trump administration has done for them.”

The Business Roundtable, an association of chief executives, issued what it called a “Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation,” intended to serve as a “modern standard for corporate responsibility.”

The statement was signed by 181 CEOs who professed to be committed to leading their companies “for the benefit of all stakeholders — customers, employees, suppliers, communities and shareholders.”

They emphasized that this is a big deal because past pledges placed shareholders first, with the general idea being that if shareholders are doing well, everyone is doing well.

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You’ve seen that sentiment before: “What’s good for General Motors is good for America.”

Now we’re seeing a more populist flavor of corporate propaganda. The message today is that what’s good for General Motors (and GM customers, employees, suppliers, communities and shareholders) is good for America.

“There seems to be a concern among the CEOs that they’re becoming the bad guys,” said Nicholas J. Cull, a professor of public diplomacy at USC who focuses on propaganda studies.

“This suggests that the business community is expecting blowback from their policies, and they’re trying to get ahead of it,” he said.

He said the latest messaging reminded him of how business leaders responded to “It’s a Wonderful Life” when the movie opened in 1946. Executives were aghast at the depiction of Old Man Potter, the banker, as a greedy, coldhearted villain.

“They wanted people to know that they weren’t really like that,” Cull said. Ensuing propaganda focused on all the good things bankers do for society.

The Business Roundtable ran the same playbook by featuring the sentiments of a number of individual CEOs along with their general statement — a clear attempt to humanize an otherwise dry document.

“This new statement better reflects the way corporations can and should operate today,” Alex Gorsky, CEO of Johnson & Johnson, was quoted as saying. “It affirms the essential role corporations can play in improving our society when CEOs are truly committed to meeting the needs of all stakeholders.”

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Margaret Peacock, a history professor at the University of Alabama who studies propaganda, said the Business Roundtable is indulging in “a clear and pretty heavy-handed attempt” to obscure reality.

“In the marketing world, they call this ‘Everyman’ propaganda,” she said. “Sure, Alex Gorsky has a 50-foot yacht, but darn it, he cares about communities.”

The most striking thing about the Roundtable’s statement is its near-total lack of specifics. Instead, the CEOs serve up vague, noncommittal pledges to do the right thing. For example:

  • “We will further the tradition of American companies leading the way in meeting or exceeding customer expectations.”
  • “Investing in our employees ... Compensating them fairly and providing important benefits.”
  • “Supporting the communities in which we work. We respect the people in our communities and protect the environment by embracing sustainable practices across our businesses.”

When will workers receive fair compensation and important benefits? The statement doesn’t say. Nor is there any mention of reducing CEO compensation, which is Exhibit A for many people when discussing executive greed run amok.
As I reported Tuesday, compensation for CEOs increased by 940% from 1978 to 2018, while pay for the average worker rose by a miserable 12% over the same 40-year period, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

A cynical person — not me, of course — might observe that if the issues raised by the Business Roundtable are things CEOs really care about, why are they issuing mission statements? Why aren’t they just doing this stuff? Why haven’t they been doing it all along?

And what’s all this high-minded pontificating on shareholders and stakeholders, as if CEOs are incapable of walking and chewing gum at the same time? It’s not possible to make shareholders happy while still doing right by everyone else?

The CEOs of the Business Roundtable act as if they’ve just made a startling discovery. However, broadening your horizons isn’t an act of enlightenment. It’s being a leader — which these guys already get paid millions to do.

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Adam Winkler, a law professor at UCLA who specializes in how companies are run, said it’s not a bad thing for business to be on the record as supporting positive change.

“This is how you shape corporate culture,” he said. “I think there is a measure of sincerity here.”

Perhaps so. Just as companies are probably sincere when they say they support tolerance and diversity and other things most people like.

“Today more than ever, customers are looking for businesses that share their values,” Winkler noted.

But he also said this: “At the end of the day, businesses exist to make money.”

Which is why it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the Business Roundtable is telling us what we want to hear, not what CEOs actually believe.

“They’re saying they’re not just CEOs making gobs of money,” said Osgood at Colorado School of Mines. “They’re concerned citizens just like you.”

The proof, of course, is in the pudding.

“The best propaganda often emerges from an element of truth,” Osgood said. “They may be sincere when they say these things. But if this is just a rhetorical statement, divorced from action, it’s virtually meaningless.”

As is often the case with even the best propaganda.


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