Corporate Political Activity, Reputational Risk Management and the 2016 Federal Election

As the 2016 presidential primary season concludes, we are quickly approaching the summer conventions and the November presidential election. With the political contests becoming more heated, this post is part of a new series on what different entities and groups need to know about their political activity as the 2016 election approaches.

The 2016 presidential election poses unique challenges for companies and organizations. As we discussed here and here, both for-profit and not-for-profit corporations need to be mindful of their involvement in the electoral process. Corporations also need to make sure that their employees are not improperly using corporate resources for individual political activity. While it is easy to develop a policy prohibiting employees from using copy machines, conference rooms and other organizational resources in connection with federal political activity, it is not as easy to measure the potential reputational risk associated with their activity.

What if the CEO of the company decides to hold a political fundraiser for one candidate over the other?

The CEO of Intel “took heat” over an event that he was planning to host for Donald Trump. The event ultimately got canceled because customers were questioning whether the event signaled that Intel supported Donald Trump.

What if your organization decides to support one candidate over another by participating in independent expenditure activity?

Target faced backlash in 2011 when it supported an organization that in turn supported a candidate that many considered a bigot. The support drew criticism from customers, celebrities with products in Target stores and shareholders alike.

What if your connected federal PAC fails to get shareholder approval before making political contributions?

Corporations need to determine whether their company will suffer negative consequences if their connected federal PAC makes contributions to candidates that do not support the corporation’s overall goals and mission.

Many of these consequences are difficult to predict – it is not always clear at the outset how a decision to participate in an election as an individual, through independent expenditures or through a connected  corporate PAC will ultimately impact your organization and its reputation. Although hindsight is always 20/20, corporations need to be forward thinking so they do not find themselves at the center of political controversy.