Publix pulls political funding amid anti-gun protests

Discussion
Source: twitter.com/ChangeTheRef
May 29, 2018
Tom Ryan

Florida-based Publix on Friday suspended corporate-funded political contributions after being called out by gun control advocates for donations to Adam Putnam, a candidate for governor who supports the National Rifle Association (NRA).

Publix’s $670,000 donation to the state’s current agriculture commissioner came to light the prior week in the Tampa Bay Times. Mr. Putnam has described himself a “proud NRA sellout” and has one of the highest rankings from the organization, the Sun-Sentinel reported.

On Tuesday, several student activists from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL, where a gunman killed 17 students and faculty Feb. 14, said they were staging a “die-in” on Friday at two Publix stores and called for similar “peaceful” protests across the chain.

On Wednesday, Publix issued a statement saying it supported “bi-partisan, business-friendly candidates” and asserted it never donated to the NRA.

On Friday, however, Publix suspended its donations and said it was re-evaluating its policy. “At Publix, we respect the students and members of the community who have chosen to express their voices on these issues. We regret our contributions have led to a divide in our community. We did not intend to put our associates and the customers they serve in the middle of a political debate. At the same time, we remain committed to maintaining a welcoming shopping environment for our customers. We would never knowingly disappoint our customers or the communities we serve.”

At least two die-ins occurred inside Publix’s locations. Protesters in the Coral Springs store were met by counter protests from pro-gun groups.

Phil Lempert, of Supermarket Guru, told the Washington Times, “We live in unusual times, and when we look at gun violence, all the rules are being rewritten. I think the impact will affect their bottom line in the very short term due to the protests, but canceling all political contributions is a very smart move.”

Among other retailers, Dick’s, Walmart, Kroger, L.L. Bean and Orvis have reworked firearms policies following the Parkland incident, while other companies have severed ties with the NRA. Dick’s went a step further by hiring a lobbyist to push for gun control, leading to boycott callouts inside competitor stores and a number of gun manufacturers to stop selling to the chain.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Did Publix make the right move in suspending political donations? Have political donations become riskier for corporations or do you see this situation largely related to current gun control sensitivities?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
"Companies need to be very cautious about these kinds of donations. They either stand tall about their beliefs and take some hits or they take caution."
"Take away the funding, take away the bias. Why are brands like Publix investing their money in politics instead of their customers?"
"If more companies stopped making political contributions, perhaps the people’s vote would once again matter."

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33 Comments on "Publix pulls political funding amid anti-gun protests"


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Mark Ryski
BrainTrust

In this age of social media, all companies need to consider their positions and actions carefully. Yes, I do believe that political contributions have become riskier for corporations, since it seems that any position taken is likely to upset some stakeholders. Furthermore, while I do agree that gun control is an especially sensitive and active issue, it is one of many.

Jon Polin
BrainTrust

We live in highly politicized times, in which information is readily available and transparent. If corporations are not prepared to deal with the consequences of their political donations – not a foregone conclusion, as some corporations are happy to take political stands and live with the consequences – then don’t make the political contributions in the first place.

Bob Phibbs
BrainTrust

As I wrote in this post Starbucks Shows Why Retailers Must Be The Drivers Of Social Change, larger retailers are being called more and more to do what government cannot do. Millennials being socially conscious consumers will radically change the old-boy network of political support, especially when they clash with public opinion.

Neil Saunders
BrainTrust

Most retailers serve a diverse range of customers so it probably sensible that they do not become too involved in politics, lest they should offend one group or another.

That said, I have mixed feelings about this particular matter.

I respect the students and their peaceful protests. They have a First Amendment right to express their views — though they don’t have an automatic right to do this on Publix property as it is private land and not a public forum.

At the same time, I think Publix has a right to support a candidate it believes has good business policies — which I believe was their primary motivation. No political group or organization should expect everyone to share their views; nor should they seek to cause undue disruption to a business because it doesn’t.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

$670,000 to support “good business policies.” I don’t think so. Like all corporate investments in politics, “donations” are an investment for specific favors.

Neil Saunders
BrainTrust

Please provide proof of the specific favors that Publix is asking for.

To my mind, it’s logical that they want to support him. He was previously the Agricultural Commissioner, so he will be well known to folks at Publix. Second, he has made statements on things like manual labor, which will be beneficial for agricultural harvests and thus Publix. Third, he made reforms to inspections, which are on record and which Publix probably likes. Fourth, he comes from a farming family, which Publix probably feels makes him more in-tune with issues about food and food supply chains.

All of those are perfectly sound business reasons for Publix to favor this candidate; considerations about gun control were really nothing to do with their decision

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

I don’t have proof of what Publix is asking for any more than I have proof of any company making sizable “donations.” But companies don’t invest in anything, including making political donations, without an expected ROI. And few investments give companies a better return than political investments. To think anything else is naive.

Neil Saunders
BrainTrust

If there is no proof then it is just a baseless accusation.

I agree with your point though, companies won’t invest unless they get a return. However, I have already indicated several things which Publix probably likes about this candidate and which would be beneficial to their business.

Lyle Bunn (Ph.D. Hon)
Guest

The business exposure of political or other donations is much broader than gun issues. A more transparent world means that corporate actions can be more easily judged and work against them. When customers start to declare how profits are spent, or can stand against achieving those profits, retail becomes a much harder business. Is it any surprise that information about product sourcing, environmental impact or human costs are so hard to find? Store fronts would be a daily protest zone.

Max Goldberg
Guest

Political donations come with lots of risk. While retailers may want to advance agendas and curry favor with politicians, they need to be keenly aware of how these efforts may be supported or opposed by their customers. Gun control, especially in Florida, is fraught with potential consequences. Publix is smart to sit this one out.

Lee Kent
BrainTrust

I echo what others have said. With information at our finger tips, companies need to be very cautious about these kinds of donations. They either stand tall about their beliefs and take some hits or they take caution about donating. For my 2 cents.

Ron Margulis
BrainTrust

There is a rule in this type of crisis communications – the longer you wait to admit culpability and address the situation honestly and sincerely, the longer your penance in the court of public opinion. I’ve been a gun-owner who has enjoyed target shooting and plinking for more than 40 years, and I believe that Publix did the right thing and did it quickly.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

I am sure Publix donated the $670,000 to Mr. Putnam to engender favors not related to guns. But when the candidate has strong positions on public issues, that donation gets associated with all the candidate’s issues.

Not only is Publix right to pull political funding, but they should ask for their money back.

Of course the next question is, what favors do they want from Putnam for that sizable investment?

Paula Rosenblum
BrainTrust

I think it’s important to remember Florida’s history. It was a red state and has historically been an NRA poster child/example.

Times were already changing (Obama did win the state and I’m sure we all recall the dangling chads of 2000), and Parkland tipped the scales over the edge. Publix did the right thing. Too visible. Too much competition. And that’s that.

Cathy Hotka
BrainTrust

I don’t know who I admire more: the Parkland kids, for accomplishing a quick win with only an investment in sidewalk chalk, or Publix, for quickly reversing its stance after realizing it had made a PR mistake. Nicely played on both sides.

Ben Ball
BrainTrust

Corporate political donations now carry the same risk as celebrity endorsements — if you place your bets you take your chances. If some event occurs, whether the fault of the politician or the celebrity involved or not, the reputation of the donor can be tarnished among some portion of its patrons. Handling that from a public relations perspective has always been tricky business but it’s pretty easy for everyone to get behind not liking a criminal or a pervert. With political issues that becomes doubly difficult because you won’t have consensus — some patrons will applaud your decision to continue or discontinue your support and others will vehemently disapprove. The company has to make a choice between the two.

James Tenser
BrainTrust

Very interesting comparison, Ben. I perceive a key distinction, however. A corporation can usually disavow a damaging celebrity endorsement with little hangover. It may find it more difficult to scrub its association with a divisive politician, however. Partisans tend to have long, and unforgiving memories. The decision often comes down to, “Which half of my customers do I prefer to offend?” For this reason, it may be good advice for retailers to avoid political donations and invest instead in popular charities.

Ed Rosenbaum
BrainTrust

I agree with the earlier comments. I live in the Publix area where the demonstrations were made and support those who believe Publix made a poor choice by even making a political contribution in these turbulent times, especially in Florida. Publix has always been customer-centered. They are wise to rethink their policy.

Art Suriano
BrainTrust

I think Publix made the right decision to stop political donations. Companies don’t vote for candidates, people do. We have to recognize that how an individual votes and who they choose to vote for is a personal choice, not one directed by their employer. I don’t agree when unions take money from dues collected from members to support a candidate when many members who have paid those dues are in favor of someone else. Unfortunately, politics today require an enormous amount of money to get into the game. As a result, lobbyists and donors give vast sums of money to get a person elected and, once they do, the elected official is expected to follow the requests of their lobbyists and donors. If more companies stopped making political contributions, perhaps the people’s vote would once again matter.

Anne Howe
BrainTrust

More and more shoppers are aligning their wallets with their values. All retailers need to be aware and responsive to this culture shift. It’s not just a fad.

Harley Feldman
BrainTrust

Political donations, in today’s social media environment, can cause difficulties due to the rapid communication of information. Companies should think through the donation’s consequences before granting them. The challenge with social media is that messages move very rapidly and people on one side of the issue will be unhappy and others supportive. When the unhappy group becomes emotional, the company should be ready with a response — working so the emotion does not get out of control.

Paula Rosenblum
BrainTrust

I guess it’s risky if your customers have obvious other choices and if you are in a publicly aware vertical. On the flip side, to my knowledge no one boycotts Koch brothers-owned or Murdoch-owned companies. Nor are they successfully boycotting the “failing New York Times.” And Hobby Lobby and Chick-fil-A haven’t declared themselves bankrupt.

Publix was in a somewhat unique situation, as it is otherwise thought of as a “good karma company.”

They did the right thing. Each company has to make its own choices.

Scott Norris
Guest

All the more important to have robust and well-enforced campaign finance and lobbying disclosure laws!

Tom Dougherty
BrainTrust

There is no right or wrong answer in questions like this. The hope is that Publix knows their customers well enough to understand their political bent. There is nothing new in pressure over social issues.

What has changed is that their are so many more of them these days. I advise clients to avoid all political issues, if they can. In today’s world trying to walk the tightrope means alienating 50 percent of your customer base.

Dave Nixon
BrainTrust

Take away the funding, take away the bias. Why are brands like Publix investing their money in politics instead of their customers? Rhetorical question, of course. THAT should be the question and will alleviate this type of distraction in the industry and allow resources and attention to be focused on where THEIR funding that they are wasting comes from — their customers.

Peter Charness
BrainTrust

$670,000 — that’s a lot of lettuce! I think if the retailer has a specific point of view that is part of their brand and identity (say REI and the environment) then supporting that POV aligns with their mission and their customer base’s bias. If they are not so aligned then I’d tend to avoid such activity as it risks being bad for business … which is bad for their shareholders.

Richard J. George, Ph.D.
BrainTrust

Publix did the right thing. It is unfortunate that this happened to a very good retailer, led by highly ethical and community focused leaders. I think the key is not so much the concept of political contributions by corporations, as much as it is avoiding contributions that may be perceived as controversial or community dividing. Certainly, gun control is one such issue, however, there are others, e.g., abortion and gay rights, on which much of America is divided. Contributions to these causes, by their very nature, will engender customer responses, both positive and negative. Whatever the decision, corporations need to understand the implications of their contributions, however they may have been positively intended.

Roy White
BrainTrust

Why a retailer which serves the general public would chose to support one candidate over another in a public way such as a donation is the mystery to begin with. No matter who you support — saint, villain, savior, whatever — you will make at least part of your customer base that doesn’t support that candidate feel alienated from your store. And even with an operation with Publix’s franchise, no supermarket retailer can afford to create a distance from any part its customer base for what is essentially a non-business move.

Shep Hyken
BrainTrust

Anytime a company makes political donations they have to realize some customers will disagree with who and what they support, especially with controversial or sensitive topics like gun control. That said, if a company has certain values and beliefs that they want to be known for, go for it. While not specifically political, Chick-fil-A is a great example of this.

Ricardo Belmar
BrainTrust

This really becomes a brand identity issue. For Publix, which is generally considered a friendly brand that supports its community it was a wise decision to stop all political contributions. $670,000 to essentially a local candidate automatically implies favors were being sought as far as the court of public opinion is concerned.

As Publix experienced, while their contribution most likely had nothing to do with guns or the NRA, the fact that their chosen candidate was outspoken on these issues meant that Publix must automatically favor those positions — again, as far as public opinion was concerned. That’s the risk for any brand to express any political support. Unless your brand is directly tied to a particular issue and position (like REI and the outdoors) you’re best bet is to stay away from such sponsorship or contributions otherwise you risk alienating some portion of your customer base.

Steve Montgomery
BrainTrust

As a company, no matter which side you are on in the Second Amendment rights issues you will be on the wrong side according to some of your customers. I agree that stopping their donations is smart for Publix to do because in this case, doing nothing is the right thing for their company.

Joanna Rutter
Guest
1 year 1 month ago

$670K is not play money for a state-level agriculture seat race. That donation carries power and symbolic weight, even if the financial support was as others have said for less controversial points of the candidate’s platform. Publix carefully listened to its customers’ wishes, and I don’t think that ever makes you a loser in retail.

Christopher P. Ramey
BrainTrust

Every touchpoint and action defines your brand.

wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"Companies need to be very cautious about these kinds of donations. They either stand tall about their beliefs and take some hits or they take caution."
"Take away the funding, take away the bias. Why are brands like Publix investing their money in politics instead of their customers?"
"If more companies stopped making political contributions, perhaps the people’s vote would once again matter."

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