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How America’s CEOs responded to the Derek Chauvin verdict

A man places flowers at a mural of George Floyd after the verdict in the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, found guilty of the death of Floyd, in Denver, Colorado, U.S., April 20, 2021.
Reuters/Kevin Mohatt
Signs of change.
Published

The courtroom verdict that turned Derek Chauvin into a convicted murderer this week brought ripples of celebration across the United States, many tempered by reminders about the ongoing need for police reform and accountability.

America’s CEOs were equally nuanced in their responses. On social media, corporate leaders expressed optimism that the Chauvin trial’s outcome was a sign of change while reiterating that there remains much work to be done in the battle against systemic racism and police violence.

Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, posted a status update on his site saying “Right now I’m thinking of George Floyd, his family and those who knew him. I hope this verdict brings some measure of comfort to them, and to everyone who can’t help but see themselves in his story. We stand in solidarity with you, knowing that this is part of a bigger struggle against racism and injustice.”

On a Microsoft blog, president Brad Smith wrote in part: “Our nation has a long journey ahead before it establishes the justice and equity that Black Americans deserve. The murder of George Floyd is a tragedy and a crime, and no jury can bring him back to life or reverse the pain and trauma experienced by his family and still felt across the country and around the world.” He also linked to information about Microsoft’s racial-equity initiatives.

General Motors chief Mary Barra stated on Twitter that “we must remain determined to drive meaningful, deliberate change on a broad scale,” while Michael Dell, the founder and CEO of Dell Computers, tweeted a quote from Martin Luther King Jr.

While many of the tweets from leaders’ personal accounts were retweeted by corporate accounts, fewer messages were sent from company handles. Our analysis found that in the hours following the verdict, 21 of the largest 200 companies in the Fortune 500 had made a public statement about the trial results. Of those, over half were made directly by the company’s CEO or other senior executives.

Is it just virtue signaling?

Wells Fargo, Salesforce, and Eli Lilly were among the handful of major US companies to comment directly on the matter.

 

Corporate messages are not a panacea, of course, and many companies will rightfully be called out for empty virtue signaling. The most sincere companies issuing statements are those that also have been spending time and money on improving diversity and inclusion within their firms, partnering with Black-owned businesses, and creating pathways to the skills development and recruitment of people in communities that are underrepresented at big US companies.

Many companies started to think seriously about all that they needed to do nearly a year ago, after Floyd’s murder, says Jennifer Risi, president and founder of The Sway Effect communications agency in New York, and former chief communications officer at Ogilvy. Now, she says, “It’s really time to go all in. Leaders need to step up and all the commitments these brands made a year ago, they need to continue to activate them.” Any corporate reaction to the verdict should not be solely about only this moment, she tells Quartz.

Alison Taylor, executive director of Ethical Systems at NYU’s Stern School of Business, believes the most successful responses to the verdict “by far” are those like Target’s “where you see the CEO talking primarily to their workforce, and releasing the internal statements they made to their workforce, when they’re talking very directly to their Black employees.”

“That is a lot more authentic,” she adds. “It’s about ‘We recognize we’ve got work to do,’ rather than just kind of unthinkingly speaking on behalf of the corporation.”

The moral necessity of business leadership on the issues

Clearly many company executives see the moral necessity and value in expressing their support for ideas that shouldn’t be politicized, like the right to not be murdered by police or the right to vote.

Intel’s chief diversity and inclusion officer, Dawn Jones, appeared to be the first of this group to post on Twitter. At 5:10pm US eastern time, minutes after the verdict was read in Minneapolis, she committed Intel to “collaborative efforts to address systemic and structural inequities.” Her statement was quickly followed by Facebook’s Zuckerberg, and by a tweet from Hewlett Packard CEO Antonio Neri. This represented a much faster response from business executives than what was witnessed in the days following Floyd’s murder last May.

Taylor points out that after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by police in Ferguson, Missouri, five years ago, and the protests that followed, companies “didn’t go near Black Lives Matter.” Now businesses see that they have to. Attitudes have changed so much that CEOs made statements about the Chauvin verdict, even though there’s the possibility of an appeal, she adds, and that is highly unusual.

Personal accounts versus corporate accounts

Though it’s unclear how much meaning to attach to the distinctions, the split between personal messages from CEOs and corporate accounts is curious. If both Zuckerberg and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg posted messages of support, why not simply attribute the statement to “Facebook”?

Is the separation an attempt to protect powerful businesses from social and political discussions, as if the line between the two were real and enforceable? Is it about maintaining a neutral image for a sprawling global entity, while its US leadership responds to a domestic issue? Is it more impactful to those stakeholders if the message comes from a human being versus a company? Is one source or the other more alienating to stakeholders who take a different perspective? And do the rules change depending on the specific cause—or polarizing political figure—at the heart of an issue?

Perhaps the mix of corporate and personal statements about the Chauvin verdict is mostly a reflection of where things stand in the larger debate over whether and how often companies ought to join the public discussion: That is, there is no real agreement over how to answer these questions. Even if there were, the expectations would keep changing. That’s the nature of progress.

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