Many major companies and CEOs spoke out after George Floyd was killed last May. How many will respond to Derek Chauvin’s conviction on charges of murdering him?
Companies now face a dilemma that they didn’t face then. Over the past few years, employees and the public have come to expect companies to take positions on large issues of public interest. The latest research from the Edelman communication firm finds that 86% of respondents across 27 countries expect CEOs to speak out on at least some societal issues. That’s why Nike, Disney, L’Oreal, the National Football League, and other high-profile organizations responded to Floyd’s death with carefully crafted statements; few of them mentioned Floyd by name, but the messages were clear. “For once, don’t do it,” said Nike, for example. “Don’t pretend there’s not a problem in America.”
But this time there’s a new element: a trial with a verdict. Commenting on a verdict, whether praising or condemning, remains beyond what most companies and CEOs are willing to do. Even commenting on the trial has been out-of-bounds; it’s hard to think of any major CEO who has done so. Thus the dilemma. Companies’ constituents expect companies to speak out on societal issues, and at the moment the No. 1 such issue is the Chauvin verdict. But what can they say?
“I think they will respect the judicial process of a jury making a decision,” says Leslie Gaines-Ross, longtime corporate reputation strategist formerly with the Weber Shandwick communication firm. “They have also already spent time over the past week crafting their internal messages to employees about respect for our judicial process and the American system of justice. And that might be where they stop.”
Some companies may go further, but it will be a high-wire act. Had Chauvin been acquitted, many companies would have appealed for calm and peaceful protest; some companies may issue such statements anyway. But talk of healing or moving on could well backfire if it seems to suggest that the large-scale, long-term issues of racial equity that Floyd’s murder highlighted have somehow been resolved by the verdict.
In any case, the reverberations of George Floyd’s story are far from over, which is another reason most companies will probably remain cautious about commenting. It seems highly likely that Chauvin will appeal; Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters of California last weekend urged Minnesota protesters to “get more confrontational” if Chauvin were acquitted, and the trial judge told Chauvin’s attorney after the verdict that “Congresswoman Waters may have given you something on appeal that may result in this whole trial being overturned.”
In addition, the anniversary of Floyd’s murder is coming up on May 25, and that date is shaping up as a significant event. It may well provide a more comfortable environment for statements by companies and CEOs, enabling them to echo and elaborate on the sentiments they expressed last year. The issues, and the expectations of companies and CEOs to respond, will be with us for a long time.