March 23, 2018 10:55 am
Updated: March 23, 2018 11:01 am

COMMENTARY: When it comes to politics, let companies be neutral

Protesters at Kinder Morgan's Burnaby property are escalating their attempt to slow work on the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. As Geoff Hastings reports, RCMP are tasked with making repeated arrests.

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It used to be controversial for a company to weigh in on a political issue. Now, it’s expected.

It’s an all too familiar trend. A gang of noisy activists calls on a company to take a stand on an issue or end a relationship with a vendor. The company, wanting to make the problem go away, gives in, thus alienating another group. The only winners are, well, the noisy activists who started it all.

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READ MORE: British Columbians ‘personally conflicted’ over Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, poll finds

The latest casualty is Domino’s Pizza, which was dragged into Canada’s pipeline politics after an anti-Trans Mountain Pipeline protester shared a photo of a stack of pizzas with a caption thanking Domino’s for its support of Camp Cloud, the makeshift tent city on British Columbia’s Burnaby Mountain.

After supporters of Canada’s oil industry pounced on Domino’s, the company investigated and couldn’t find any evidence that a franchisee in the area made any such donation. Even if one had, it would hardly be tantamount to a company-wide endorsement of the cause.

Regardless, momentum was building for the Domino’s-hates-oil side of things. When the company spoke up last Sunday, it was in support of the oil industry.

READ MORE: Protesters return to Burnaby to block Trans Mountain pipeline construction

“Although we fully support everyone’s right to their opinion and free speech, we do not endorse the protest movement as we recognize the importance of the Canadian oil patch industry and the economic impact the industry has on all Canadian citizens,” a statement on the Domino’s Canada Facebook page said. “Most importantly, we offer our full support to the dedicated, hard-working men and women assigned to the ‘patch’ who often times face very difficult conditions. Your efforts are truly appreciated.”

Within minutes, Domino’s became a favourite shop of Albertans, a flood of whom pledged to start making orders. But then the winds shifted again, as anti-oil activists fought back, slamming Domino’s on its own Facebook page and vowing to get their (gas-oven-baked) pizzas from elsewhere.

READ MORE: Alberta factoring in Trans Mountain pipeline in budget forecasts

Further complicating matters, Domino’s deleted its Facebook post, and the activist who posted the initial photo clarified that the pizzas were not given for any political reasons, but rather they were part of an unclaimed order that was given away.

I’ve no doubt that in the midst of this there was an executive at the Windsor, Ont., headquarters for Domino’s Canada who knew nothing about pipelines and regretted waking up that morning.

In siding with Canadian oil, Domino’s picked the path of least resistance — and what I believe to be the correct position — but it should concern any business leaders that the company was forced to make such a determination because of one person’s Facebook post in the first place.

From 2015: Tim Hortons gets crash course in brand association after pulling Enbridge ad

Let me be clear in saying companies have the right to take whatever political stances they want, just as consumers have the right to respond however they please. But that doesn’t mean we should revel in a culture in where this is the expectation.

When activists demand that companies sever ties with a vendor, stop advertising on a particular platform, or condemn a political position, the damage goes beyond simply generating public relations nightmares. The practice is rooted in the flawed belief that companies — which, at their most basic level, serve a transactional role in society — must exist with consciences to be legitimate.

READ MORE: Advertisers work overtime to take their spots off Breitbart News

It isn’t just about being political, but landing on the “right” side of the issue — despite there being no such thing as a consensus on the contentious issues that trigger these episodes.

If some CEO takes aim at something near and dear to my heart, I may decide to put my money elsewhere, but why must I agree with a company’s management on things like domestic energy production and tax reform?

If a company wants to engage in moral or political battles by donating to political parties, or refusing service to people of certain belief systems or lifestyles, let them. But stop pigeonholing brands that don’t want to play that game.

Celebrities are faced with the same pressures. Dolly Parton and Taylor Swift have refused to engage in political conversations, and have been attacked for making such decisions.

A Guardian editorial chided Swift for not preaching politics to her fans, concluding that she must be a “musical envoy for the president’s values” because she hadn’t chimed into the chorus of celebrity condemnations of Donald Trump.

COMMENTARY: Why boycotting a business doesn't help those who work there

Activist culture has taken neutrality off the table. This idea that taking a side is everyone’s duty is found in the words of Desmond Tutu, who once said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

In times of genuine oppression, I agree. But not every contentious issue is a matter of oppression and injustice. Sometimes, it’s just political disagreement, in which cases neutrality should be regarded as a virtue from any player whose job is not to litigate these matters.

We’re seeing an expansion of the second-wave feminist edict that “the personal is the political,” which rose to popularity in the 1960s. More than 50 years later, there’s little that isn’t political, or at least ripe to be politicized.

These activists are looking for fights. And if they don’t find a reason to fight they will generously provide one.

Companies would be well-suited to stop taking the bait.

Andrew Lawton is host of The Andrew Lawton Show on Global News Radio 980 CFPL in London and a commentator for Global News.

© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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