In mid-June, AMC CEO Adam Aron announced his movie theater chain would not require patrons to wear masks when they reopen in July in an effort to avoid “political controversy.” Still, controversy ensued. After significant pushback and criticism from a range of stakeholders, AMC reversed course only a day after the initial announcement.
This episode speaks to the broader challenge facing decision-makers tasked with reopening and running companies in the “new normal” because of COVID-19. Not only must leaders balance safety and financial impact, but they also must recognize that – as views of this pandemic become increasingly politicized – their positions and statements on the topic will be viewed through a political lens. And while the majority of corporate positions won’t become headline-making controversies, it is increasingly critical to understand the ways in which partisanship influences beliefs about companies.
As part of our ongoing research into the impact of COVID-19 on corporate reputation, Purple Strategies surveyed Americans about their opinions on reopening the economy and their beliefs about the opposing views of two outspoken business leaders on the issue: Tesla CEO Elon Musk and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban.
What we see from the results is that, while messages are evaluated through a political filter, the reputational impact on brands is not so clear cut.
On the face of it, perceptions of Musk and Cuban are nearly identical:
• 29% think each has an excellent reputation, while about 10% rate their reputation as poor;
• About a quarter of the Informed Public think each has been doing an excellent job leading their organizations through the pandemic, and;
• About a third believe each cares a lot about their employees.
And, these views hold pretty true across party lines, with Musk holding a bit more favor among Republicans and Cuban a slight advantage among Democrats.
But, when we introduce each leader’s position – and importantly, the rhetoric they used to express those positions – we see Americans retreat to their partisan corners.
- Mark Cuban: “Whatever the White House is doing for the president and vice president, that’s the protocol I want to use for my employees. And if I can’t adhere to that, then why would I put them at risk?”
- Elon Musk: “Reopen with care and appropriate protection, but don’t put everyone under de facto house arrest.”
Among all respondents, views are nearly evenly split, with around half endorsing Cuban’s position and half supporting Musk’s. But when we take a closer look, we see the political divide is clear. Only 1/3 of Democrats agree with Musk, while 2/3 agree with Cuban (31% and 69% respectively) – and the inverse is true among Republicans (67% for Musk and 33% for Cuban). This trend continues in responses to related questions, with Democrats preferring companies be more cautious in their approach while Republicans expect that companies do what they can to provide for the safety of workers and customers, without expecting that they go beyond government guidance.
One would expect these partisan preferences to also be reflected in a change in views of the brand each executive leads – or at least, that’s what we expected based on years of analyzing pre-/post- message testing results.
But this isn’t what happened.
Despite messaging alignment (Dems for Cuban and GOP for Musk), the Mavericks get a reputational bump in post-message testing while Tesla loses steam – and this is true across party lines.
Not too surprisingly, the Mavericks see a reputational increase among Democrats of nearly 10%. More surprisingly, though, we see nearly the same percentage of Republicans shifting their views in favor of the team, from rating the Mavs’ reputation as poor or unknown to neutral or positive. Not only do we see the Mavericks increase their reputation across parties, we also see Tesla lose reputational equity across parties. After exposure to Musk’s reopening message, Republicans cool their views of Tesla from thinking it has an excellent reputation to holding a more neutral opinion (-6%). This is true to a greater extent among Democrats (-14%).
It’s hard to say for sure why Republicans’ pro-Musk/anti-Cuban views didn’t translate to increasingly positive views for Tesla or negative views of the Mavs. What we do know is, whether you’re red, blue or purple, everyone agrees that people should feel safe doing their jobs. And, maybe when it comes down to it, as much as Republicans agree with Musk’s “let’s get back to work” mentality, they recognize that such a position impacts real people, which means that position needs to be balanced with sufficient assurances to protect employee health and safety.
As phased approaches to opening non-essential businesses continue to roll out across the country, the reality for many Americans is not when they will go back to work, but what work will look like when they do. Americans want to know that employers are taking steps to protect workers. Regardless of public rhetoric, leaders prove real impact with the actions they take. Americans across the political spectrum will feel more comfortable and confident in our collective back-to-work plan when they see that employers are doing everything in their power to appropriately balance financial decisions with public health and safety.
Purple Pulse Survey of the US Informed Public. N=834. June 10-13, 2020.
By Erica Goldman | Director | firstname.lastname@example.org
Purple is actively partnering with companies and industries to navigate the ever-changing COVID-19 pandemic and prepare for the future that will come after, bringing deep experience helping the world’s best-known companies navigate the world’s toughest challenges. Please reach out to author Erica Goldman or any member of our Purple team to let us know how we can support you.