Edelman CEO Richard Edelman sits down with Yahoo Finance Live to discuss the letter signed by CEOs demanding legislation on gun violence from Congress, the importance of corporate America to voice concerns on societal issues, and the backlash companies may face from speaking out.
DAVE BRIGGS: In the wake of recent tragedies, Congress has been feeling a lot of pressure to reevaluate America's gun laws. And that heat turned up today when more than 200 US CEOs signed a letter to the Senate demanding immediate action to reduce gun violence, calling it a public health crisis. The letter, first reported by "Axios," does not call for any specific policy change, but features signatures from the chief executives of Lyft, Unilever, Dick's Sporting Goods, the owner of the Philadelphia Eagles, and Richard Edelman, who is the CEO of Edelman, one of the executives who signed this letter.
Richard, nice to see you. It is a difficult time for CEOs to take a stance on anything approaching politics because of the divisiveness of our society. So what made you decide to go forward and sign this letter?
RICHARD EDELMAN: So, look, the most trusted institution in the country is my employer. And each employer has to evaluate what matters to his stakeholders. And to my employees, my number one objective in signing this was to say, we need to change. We need this change in America.
And I got pinged by Chip Bergh from Levi Strauss, and I joined 200 other CEOs in urging the Senate to action. Now, be clear-- what we said was nothing specific. We want something like a red flag law, or we want some limitation on age, or we want something that limits high capacity ammunition-- all of these should be on the table. It's up to Congress to make the specifics.
But we need gun safety. We're not looking for gun control. And I believe in the Second Amendment. But I want to be sure that guns are used appropriately.
SEANA SMITH: Richard, you signed a similar letter back in 2019 urging the Senate to rein in some of their gun laws, to adjust their gun laws. Are you more confident, I guess, from the conversations that you're having with your peers, from the CEOs of a number of companies, are you more confident that we will see change this time?
RICHARD EDELMAN: So I'm quite sure that there are 10 Republicans who will come across, because their constituents are all parents, they're employers, and they're citizens. And after what happened in Buffalo in the supermarket and Uvalde in the school, you know, what more do we need-- evidence do we need? This is 10 years after Sandy Hook, and status quo just won't do.
And somehow, falling back on the rights of citizens to bear arms is just a kind of excuse for delaying what is inevitably in the interests of the communities. I go back and forth between New York and Chicago. And a Goldman Sachs guy going to a brunch with his sister is shot by some lunatic on the subway. That's just not OK.
It makes people not want to come into the office of Edelman. And in Chicago, they have robberies on State Street and Chicago Avenue because people are fighting it out downtown-- not OK, because it stops people coming for tourism. So we need, as a matter of business only, as a matter of safety of our employees, we need change.
RACHELLE AKUFFO: And we did see some movement from the House. Obviously, they approved an extensive gun legislation package, including raising the minimum age to buy semi-automatic rifles from 18 to 21. It still has to head to the Senate. How much weight do you think this letter, being that, obviously, more than about 220 CEOs signing on here-- how much pressure do you think this will put on them?
RICHARD EDELMAN: I thought it was interesting the group of CEOs who did sign on. It was a mix of tech companies, younger companies, clothing companies, consumer products companies, some service companies, like my own. It's a pretty unanimous kind of approach.
And corporate America is saying, come on, Senate, do your job. It's time. Find a middle ground. Even if we have to settle for less than optimal from some sides or other, get to legislation.
DAVE BRIGGS: I was surprised, Richard, at the lack of sports involvement here-- just one owner across all sports really stood out. But I looked at the Trust Barometer from Edelman-- and number eight in terms of the takeaways as business needs to step up on societal issues. But number one is distrust is now society's default emotion.
And we saw that play out in Florida with Disney when their CEO did step up on societal issues. So what's your message to the hundreds of CEOs who are choosing to sit down this issue and think they can let it pass?
RICHARD EDELMAN: So the big point to make in the most recent Trust Barometer is, of course, run a good business is the first need. But the second, and almost equal, is stand up on societal issues. Now, the definition of that is sustainability, and reskilling, and wage levels, and diversity, and inclusion.
On guns, I would say that each CEO has to evaluate whether it is in his or her company's interest to make that one of the societal issues. And it is certainly a matter, for me, of responsibility to my cities, of Chicago and New York, and of public safety. And that's my definition.
Now, there can be others who are CEOs who contact their congressmen or senators personally, make contributions personally-- that's a perfectly plausible approach. I'm not saying that every company should use its platform to advance societal issues writ big, whether it's abortion, voting rights, or gun control. But if you are as a citizen convinced that this is the right thing, at least as a CEO contact your legislator and say, it's time to pass this legislation. Do it privately. That's fine too.
SEANA SMITH: Richard, you mentioned the fact that the CEOs that did sign on to this letter, they're from a number of industries, many of them being consumer-facing. And I think maybe some of the business leaders who haven't been outspoken on this issue are worried about potential backlash if they do take a stand, if they do encourage some sort of a gun reform then they will be punished by the consumer. I know Edelman has looked into this.
How do employees typically respond? And also, more importantly, to some of these business leaders, how does the consumer respond when a business leader takes a stand, in this case on gun control?
RICHARD EDELMAN: So it's one of these issues where the country is deeply split. And basically, employees who want to work for a values-led company will vote with their feet. 2/3 of people say we want companies to stand up on issues of the day, otherwise I won't work at the company.
Over half of the consumers say that I'm a belief-driven buyer. So again, I want my brands to stand up and speak up. But you also have your Dick's Sporting Goods had to confront a consumer boycott after they took the decision to take guns out of stores.
So I think the question for you as a CEO and as a leader is, is it the right thing to do as a public advocate, which I did yesterday on signing on to the letter, or is it better to do privately with your congressman and senator? That, again, is a perfectly plausible approach if this is going to upset your workforce or your consumer base.