The new corporate conundrum: To congratulate 'President-Elect Biden,' or not?
Some of America’s biggest companies are doing what President Trump and other top Republicans have not yet done: refer to Joe Biden as president-elect. General Motors, Ford, Fiat Chrysler, Toyota and United Airlines are among the companies that have gone on record congratulating Biden and pledging to work with the new administration.
Normally, such pronouncements are nothing more than boilerplate, bland and predictable statements from corporate PR departments. But this year, corporate execs must give extra thought on whether to go on record welcoming a new president—especially as Trump rallies the millions of people who voted for him to reject the projections made by major news organizations declaring victory for Biden.
“This is a profoundly strange moment for the country and it puts companies in a really difficult position,” says Tim Calkins, a marketing professor at Northwestern University. “On the one hand, companies want to show support for the new Biden administration and certainly getting on the right side of that administration is so important,” he adds, noting the role the new administration will have on regulations that could affect corporations. “The problem is also companies want to be careful about annoying the Trump administration or more importantly the Trump supporters.”
As of Monday afternoon, Trump was still pressing his case on Twitter, alleging election fraud and other conspiracy theories that have not been proven; Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, on Monday steadfastly backed Trump. The Associated Press, citing unnamed sources, reported that Trump’s threats of election lawsuits, which have a slim chance of succeeding, are “aiming to keep his loyal base of supporters on his side even in defeat.”
For brands, congratulating the president-elect wouldn’t normally be an issue, says Americus Reed, The Whitney M. Young Jr. Professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. But, “it’s tricky in this political day and age because of the climate right now,” he says, noting that “until there is a strong concession and acceptance, it might be slightly controversial.”
Reed advises brands to refrain from vocalizing their positions right now, because most consumers are fatigued from the election already. “Consumers are wanting to get a break from all of this, as opposed to holding the brands’ feet to the fire [waiting for a statement],” Reed says. “If congratulating Joe Biden is speaking against what is the preferred view of how half the country sees this election, it might be safer to stay out of this until the election results are completely certified and everything is counted.”
Some of the most notable statements so far have come from the auto industry, whose fortunes are often closely linked with administration decisions on emissions and other regulations.
Ford was among the earliest marketers to comment, once TV networks projected Biden as the winner on Saturday morning. “We congratulate president-elect Biden and newly and re-elected officials across all levels of government,” the automaker stated. “It is our hope these leaders will focus on bringing the country together and pursue policies that encourage U.S. manufacturing, sustainability and global economic stability.”
General Motors offered a similar statement, congratulating president-elect Biden while adding that “we look forward to working with the new administration and incoming Congress on policies that support our customers, dealers and employees, help strengthen our manufacturing presence in the United States and advance our vision of an all-electric, zero-emissions future.”
Similar statements came from Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and Toyota, which stated that: “We look forward to working with the Biden Administration to meet the challenges of the COVID virus, keeping the auto industry competitive and strengthening the U.S. and global economy.”
On Saturday, Scott Kirby, CEO of United Airlines, sent a letter of congratulations to President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris. “I wish you and your incoming administration the greatest success in addressing our nation’s vital needs,” he wrote, adding that, “while there will always be differences in any country as large and diverse as the United States, I continue to believe that there is far more that unites us than divides us.”
As of Monday afternoon, Trump had not used his Twitter account to lash out at the companies—but he has shown a penchant for going after brands that go against his wishes. In August, he urged his followers to boycott Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., claiming it had banned his signature red “Make America Great Again” campaign hats. The tweet came after a media report about a diversity presentation at a Goodyear plant in which “MAGA attire” was called out as being unacceptable.
“The one thing we know for sure about Donald Trump is that he does keep track of who supports his efforts and who doesn’t, and I think that is a factor that certainly people are thinking about,” Calkins says.
As for the recent statements from automakers, Reed suggests that after the first company came out with a statement of congratulations, others likely felt compelled to follow. “It might look strange if you’re in that space and not speaking out, or someone might interpret your silence,” he says, noting that many brands that have been quick to congratulate could be doing so to tee up political favor for the future.
Brands in other industries have mostly laid low, or offered bland responses when asked for comment. “Our business dates back to almost the founding of this nation. We have a long history of working well with administrations of both parties and I have no doubt we will continue to do just that long into the future,” Molson Coors Chief Communications and Corporate Affairs Officer Adam Collins stated in an email to Ad Age.
Even attempts at down-the-middle statements risk inviting backlash. Last week, Gap was blasted on social media for tweeting a blue-and-red unity hoodie, long before final election results were reported. Experts say such messaging can appear to be taking advantage of the situation.
“No good deed goes unpunished,” says Gene Grabowski, partner at public relations firm Kglobal. “We can hope that Gap was trying to promote the healing process but it can also appear like they were trying to capitalize on something.”
Mary Ann O'Brien, CEO and founder of OBI creative, a strategic communications and advertising agency, suggests brands “tread carefully and remember that there are two forms of action brands and big businesses can take—public and private.”
She adds: “While a big brand like Walmart may make very modest comments or none at all on the election, privately, its brass can lean on the President to concede gracefully and accomplish two goals at once—preserve democracy as well as its integrity with its base.”
Contributing: Automotive News reporter Michael Martinez