Thursday, February 16, 2017

On the Value of Business-Societal Linkages: Facebook’s Zuckerberg Opposing President Trump?

In a public letter in February, 2017, Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook, linked his company’s product, the online social network, to the societal and indeed global level in claiming that “progress now requires humanity coming together not just as cities or nations, but also as a global community.”[1] The New York Times took this to mean that the CEO “stepped into the raging debate about globalization.”[2] Taking sides in a political or cultural debate can both advance and harm a business, hence the matter of the stepping into is worthy of analysis in its own right.

Generally speaking, it is not prudent business for a CEO to plant the company in which he or she works on one side or the other of a controversial matter, as existing and potential customers on the other side can be expected to move to a competitor—even if that competitor has not taken a side in the debate. That the New York Times construes Zuckerberg as taking a position at odds with U.S. President Trump’s nationalism may be an indication that Trump supporters may also interpret Zuckerberg’s move thusly and so gain a negative view of Zuckerberg’s company. This attribution of association may be tenuous, however, as it is possible to be in favor of humanity coming together in terms of human rights, for instance, and minimizing state aggression, and yet still be for penalizing American companies that have taken plants abroad to take advantage of lower wages and less regulation. Even so, perception can become reality, so Trump supporters could view Facebook negatively anyway and the damage would be done.

Zuckerberg might advisably have listed some examples of social goods that could be furthered by humanity coming together—omitting mention of Trump policies. Efforts to assure readers that Trump’s policies are not in the crosshairs would have been a good investment. To be sure, “Zuckerberg said his reasons for writing the . . . letter began to take shape before [the 2016] presidential election, spurred by broader trends. He said he [had] recognized that more people were feeling left behind by globalization, and by societal and technological changes.”[3] His vision was for “a global community that works for everyone.”[4] This includes a viable “social infrastructure” that would include stronger online communities. Given Facebook’s interest in helping people from being left behind technologically, the social infrastructure should be a salient part of the global community that works for everyone.” In other words, helping people to join the technological age (and thus be able to participate on Facebook!) does not necessarily translate into opposition to a tax on American companies with factories abroad or enforcing immigration law. Zuckerberg could have made this point more explicit; his “Facebook-friendly” interpretation of “global community” would actually have been strengthened in the process.

We can conclude from this case that wading into a controversial issue involves pitfalls for a business, yet they can be obviated by steering clear of politics such that efforts to link business strategy to a societal and even global vision can pay off for a company without a lot of risk.  

[1] Mike Isaac, “Facebook’s Zuckerberg, Bucking Tide, Takes Public Stand Against Isolationism,” The New York Times, February 16, 2017.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.