Tea-d Off: What Occupy Wall Street and Other Protests Mean for Companies

Why should companies care about the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street protests? Because the movements, while vastly different in ideology and style, manifest a concern that’s real to many Americans: a feeling that it’s become increasingly difficult to secure a middle class existence through fair play and hard work, and large institutions, including corporations, are part of the problem. Here’s the part that should keep every communications executive up at night—according to a recent Time Magazine poll, 54 percent of Americans have a favorable view of the Occupy protesters.

Of course this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Americans watched the living standards of workers in China, India and Brazil rise and corporate profits soar while their own wages and job opportunities dwindled. The upshot is that a significant number are having their Howard Beale mad-as-hell moment in cities across America and even globally from Berlin to Tokyo.

For corporate leaders, this is an important opportunity to be viewed as part of the solution, rather than the problem. General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt recently found himself—fairly or not—on the wrong side of the issue. During an Oct. 9 interview on “60 Minutes,” he touted GE’s success in harnessing economic opportunities overseas, even as GE lags in creating jobs at home. When asked by Lesley Stahl whether American companies have a civic responsibility to create [American] jobs, he shook his head saying he’s accountable only to GE investors. He added that Americans should be rooting for GE’s success. Surprised by the tin-eared response, Stahl asked “do you not see any reason why the public doesn’t hold the American corporation up here,” gesturing to a point above her head.

By comparison, one CEO who stopped to think before speaking is Starbucks’ Howard Schultz, whose rhetoric and action appears more in tune with the national mood. Speaking to The Daily Beast about Starbucks’ program to spur job growth in America, Schultz said, “I feel very strongly I have to take on a deeper responsibility to do all that I can to use the scale of my company for good. I don’t want to blame anybody. I just want to stand up and make a difference.”

What Schultz understands is that corporate responsibility can serve as a useful framework for navigating the complex landscape of stakeholder interests. By launching the Create Jobs for U.S.A. Program, the company positions itself as part of the solution. Starbucks is partnering with the Opportunity Finance Network to raise capital to fund small businesses, an important engine of job creation. The company backed its commitment with $5 million in seed money while also articulating its values and inviting customer participation. Starbucks also uses the program to remind the public of the jobs it generates here at home, noting that it is on track to hire 70,000 people for its U.S. operations by the end of 2011.

Starbucks isn’t the only company placing job creation at the center of its community initiatives. Volkswagen’s At Home in America campaign ties Volkswagen’s success to that of American workers by investing $4 billion in U.S. operations, which includes a new plant—and jobs—in Tennessee. And in a nod to the disconnect often cited between activities on Wall Street and those on Main Street, Goldman Sachs launched its Progress Is campaign, demonstrating the stimulus effect of the firm’s economic development projects in local economies.

While Immelt was certainly right in his assertion that he’s beholden to the interests of investors, his tone was out of sync with the times. Americans expect companies to play a role in tackling the toughest of society’s problems. Companies that understand this and communicate a genuine concern backed up with concrete action find themselves on the right side of the debate and public opinion.

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