Companies like Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines walk a delicate line when they wade into divisive social issues like gun control, business and public relations experts said Monday.
But, decisions like cutting ties with the National Rifle Association in the midst of social media uproar, they said, can also come down to basic business strategy. Companies like Delta, who have long been hesitant to make any kind of political statement, may be left to decide which group could hurt profits the least if offended.
Then again, economic ramifications can also come from elsewhere. On Monday, Delta's decision to end its contract offering discounted rates for NRA members led conservatives in Georgia's state legislature to block a lucrative tax break the airline was in line to receive.
“It’s econ 101, or business 201,” said Tom Smith, an economist with the Goizueta Business School at Emory University. “It’s a demand-, service-oriented industry and they rely on consumers to sell their product. And in terms of consumers, I think there are surveys out there that the majority of people are interested in some kind of what’s called ‘common sense gun legislation.’ ”
Delta made its decision on Saturday, amid a gun control debate reignited following this month's deadly school shooting in Parkland, Fla. United Airlines ended its similar offer shortly after Delta announced its decision and several other companies, including major rental car groups, did the same.
The backlash – which exploded on social media with hashtags like #BoycottNRA — was largely the result of progressive website ThinkProgress publishing last week a list of companies with NRA partnerships. That list, subsequently promoted by survivors-turned-activists from Parkland, included Delta, United and several other companies that have since ended their relationships with the NRA.
After companies began cutting ties, some received new backlash, this time from upset gun owners and Second Amendment groups. And, in Delta’s case, state legislators.
Monday morning, House Speaker David Ralson called Delta's decision — which the airline characterized as removing itself from the conversation — as a vilification of the Second Amendment. By the afternoon, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle said he would not support a $50 million jet fuel sales tax exemption that would benefit Delta until the airline "changes its position and fully reinstates its relationship with the NRA."
“Consumers today expect the brand that they buy into has their beliefs,” said David Johnson, the CEO of Suwanee-based Strategic Vision PR Group.
That’s “uncharted territory,” Johnson said. And companies actually responding to such pressures in a substantive way is a relatively new thing, too.
“Lots of things happen on social media and we don’t know what the staying power of the issue is,” said Sundar Bharadwaj, a marketing chair at the University of Georgia’s Terry College of Business. “Now I think companies, they’re probably looking at ‘what’s the staying power of this issue’ and then responding.”
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