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Lessons in Unintended Consequences: The Corporate Donation Controversy

By Penelope Hillemann on August 19, 2010

No matter what your views on recent well-publicized corporate political donations, the resulting brouhaha has been very interesting to watch from a public relations perspective.

The Supreme Court declared earlier this year in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission that the First Amendment’s free-speech protections mean that corporations cannot be prevented from making political contributions to support or oppose a candidate’s election.

As corporations have stepped out to exercise this new freedom, they have sometimes stepped directly into controversy. In the Minnesota gubernatorial race, corporations that supported a candidacy purportedly because of perceived business-friendly positions are now seen by many as supporting the candidate’s views on other, very different issues. Target Corporation, a well-regarded retail business that has gone to considerable lengths to position itself as gay-friendly, now faces a perception that it has reversed course on that issue, leading to calls for a boycott by disappointed customers despite an apology from the company’s CEO.

I suspect Target will ride this out. Years of good corporate citizenship and a history of progressive employment policies have laid a solid foundation, and Target has enjoyed an excellent reputation here in its home state and around the nation. Yet the recent uproar reminds us of a perennial truth: reputations are built over years but can be damaged in an instant. Now that corporations are recognized as having free-speech rights, they’ll need to remember to “speak” carefully.

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