We analyzed 23 memos from CEOs responding to the US Capitol riot. The most effective messages get personal.
- Business Insider analyzed 23 messages from CEOs across industries responding to the attempted coup at the US Capitol Wednesday.
- The strongest messages called for unity and made clear demands on government officials.
- Effective statements also explained why this issue matters to this particular leader.
- Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.
On Wednesday, a pro-Trump mob stormed the US Capitol while Congress was confirming Joe Biden's win in the presidential election. It took hours for authorities to clear the Capitol building, during which at least four people died.
As news of the attempted coup spread, business leaders across industries — including tech, finance, and healthcare — sent staff memos and issued public statements decrying the violence. Collectively, the messages expressed sadness, outrage, and hope for a better future.
Insider reviewed 23 of those memos looking for common themes. Some memos were posted publicly on social media; others were emailed directly to staff and reported in other media outlets. A full list of the companies whose memos we included can be found at the bottom of this article.
In our analysis, we considered whether the messages met the criteria outlined in a Harvard Business Review article by professors who have studied CEO activism.
We also considered whether the messages reflected some best practices that corporate communications and PR veteran LaToya Evans previously shared with Business Insider. (Evans shared these practices in the wake of protests responding to George Floyd's death, but much of her guidance applies here as well.)
The strongest memos explain why this CEO chose to speak out about this issue. They call for unity and strength among a divided populace. And they make clear, immediate demands on US leaders.
Here are some of the best examples of those principles in action.
The most effective memos emphasize unity
Wednesday's events were painful for people from many different communities. Strong CEO statements acknowledge that common pain. As Evans told Insider last summer, companies who want to participate in conversations around social and political issues should start "by being genuine and acknowledging the time we're in." They shouldn't make the situation about them or their special interests, Evans added.
Consider the language that Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon used in his statement: "It's time for all Americans to come together and move forward with a peaceful transition of power." Or JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon's emphasis on collective identity: "This is not who we are as a people or a country. We are better than this."
Other executives encouraged unity among American leadership specifically. "I urge leaders from both sides of the aisle to take a stand," wrote PayPal CEO Dan Schulman. Similarly, the Electric Power Supply Association president and CEO Todd Snitchler said, "While we may disagree on certain policies or priorities, we are proud to work with all members of Congress and their dedicated staff as they strive to find the best outcomes for all Americans."
Each of these messages remind Americans about their common values, which the leaders hope will supersede even meaningful differences.
The most effective memos explain why this issue matters to the company
In their Harvard Business Review article, Aaron K. Chatterji (of Duke University's Fuqua School of Business) and Michael W. Toffel (of Harvard Business School) argue that the most influential CEO statements have a clear "why."
"To influence public policy," they write, "the message has to be authentic to both the individual leader and the business. There should be a compelling narrative for why this issue matters to this CEO of this business at this time."
Jay Timmons, the president and CEO of the National Association of Manufacturers, highlighted that narrative in his statement. "Across America today, millions of manufacturing workers are helping our nation fight the deadly pandemic that has already taken hundreds of thousands of lives," Timmons wrote. "But none of that will matter if our leaders refuse to fend off this attack on America and our democracy." In his statement, Timmons is standing up for all Americans, but in particular his own members and the sacrifices they've made.
Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla took a slightly different tack. Bourla was born and raised in Thessaloniki, Greece, and immigrated to the US when he was 34 years old. He spent the earlier part of his career working for Pfizer in Europe; today he leads a company that developed a vaccine with the potential of saving lives around the world. "So many people dream of living in a country governed by the rule of law," Bourla wrote. "America must continue to be that place." Here Bourla appeals to people's pride in their country and the freedom they've found here.
The most effective memos clearly call for action
Over the summer, ice cream maker Ben & Jerry's issued perhaps the most impactful corporate statement responding to George Floyd's death. Ben & Jerry's called for the US government to take action against the systemic racism that led to Floyd's death, and demanded that President Trump disavow white supremacists and nationalist groups that support him.
Some responses to the attempted coup included similarly direct, and urgent, demands. The Business Roundtable, an association of CEOs from some of America's largest employers, issued a statement that "calls on the President and all relevant officials to put an end to the chaos."
Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of the NAACP, went so far as to call for Trump's impeachment, "so that he will never again be able to harm our beloved country, and more importantly, its people." Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have called for Trump to be removed from office either with impeachment or with the 25th Amendment.
As Chatterji and Toffel write in the Harvard Business Review, CEOs have only recently started speaking out on social and political issues. But today's consumers expect business leaders to take a public stance.
Evans told Business Insider that not speaking out "will almost certainly be damaging" to a business that chooses to keep silent. Again, Evans was speaking about companies' responses to George Floyd's death. But the same logic applies here.
"Opting out of being vocal during this time," Evans said, "simply isn't an option."
Here's the full list, in alphabetical order, of companies whose memos we analyzed:
- American Express
- American Petroleum Institute
- Bank of America
- Business Roundtable
- Electric Power Supply Association
- Goldman Sachs
- Johnson & Johnson
- JP Morgan
- National Association of Manufacturers
- Wells Fargo
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