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Tina Casey headshot

Corporate Social Responsibility Steps In Where The FCC Fears To Tread

By Tina Casey

Call it next-level corporate social responsibility. This year marks a new wave in which brands are acting on key public issues that elected officials and government agencies are not addressing. In February Dick's Sporting Goods spearheaded action on gun sales, last month Unilever took on toxic social media, and now advertisers are cutting ties with Fox News personality Laura Ingraham over personal comments directed at a 17-year-old high school student who survived the Parkland massacre, David Hogg.

The Ingraham episode is especially interesting because it pulls together all three trends: gun control, social media and the professional behavior of high profile media personalities.

First Bill O'Reilly, Now Laura Ingraham

Variety describes Laura Ingraham, as a "veteran conservative-leaning host and President Trump confidante." Her situation is especially interesting because she came to Fox News Channel just last year, as a replacement for Bill O'Reilly.

O'Reilly lost his show The O'Reilly Factor last spring after news surfaced that Fox paid out millions to settle sexual harassment claims against him. Major advertisers reacted by pulling out of his show, and within two weeks he was off the air.

Last week's Ingraham episode is following the same pattern so far, though the circumstances are quite different.

O'Reilly's behavior was repellent and harmful, but it was not conducted in the public sphere, and it was certainly not intended for public circulation.

In contrast, Ingraham fully intended to make her behavior public. Her troubles began on March 27 when she posted a comment about David Hogg on her Fox Twitter account, @IngrahamAngle.

If her tweet referenced Hogg's advocacy for gun control, Ingraham may have been able to fend off at least some of the backlash. However, she did not address gun control or any other issue. The comment was personal, and to make matters worse it was directed at a young person who by almost every definition is a child (Hogg is 17 years old at this time).

Brands taking stands...

There has been a lively public debate over media standards ever since the Federal Communication Commission revoked its Fairness Doctrine in 1987. The debate has only grown more complicated with the advent of cable television, the Internet and social media.

That vacuum has created an opportunity for brands that seek to project a strong social corporate social responsibility image.

Within hours after David Hogg posted a list of 12 top Ingraham Angle advertisers on Twitter, advertisers began rushing for the exits. Many took the opportunity to articulate their standards, reflecting a clear understanding that public opinion does not favor powerful adults who level personal attacks on minors.

By the morning of March 30, the list of advertisers cutting ties with Ingraham for comments directed at a minor included Stitch Fix, Johnson & Johnson, Hulu, Joseph A. Bank, Nutrish Pet Foods , Wayfair, Nestle and Expedia. Here is a representative comment from Wayfair:

“The decision of an adult to personally criticize a high school student who has lost his classmates in an unspeakable tragedy is not consistent with our values.”

Later on Friday Liberty Mutual, Office Depot, Jenny Craig, Atlantis Paradise Island and the Global investment group Principal joined the advertiser exodus, prompting Variety to observe that IBM was the only "blue chip" advertiser remaining.

On Friday Variety also reported that Ingraham will be on vacation next week.

Meanwhile, the bleeding continued over the weekend, with Bayer AG joining the list of advertisers fleeing Ingraham.

According to Variety, as of this writing Fox has no intention of dropping Ingraham from its lineup. By the same token, though, the advertisers who dropped out are not likely to come back to the fold.

...But why Hogg? Why now?

Whether or not Ingraham stays on the air, the Hogg episode brings up a good question: where have all these advertisers been all these years?

After all, Ingraham's use of personal invective -- often racially tinged -- is nothing new, and race has routinely factored into Fox attacks on "anchor babies" and other children in recent years, including a 14-year-old Muslim student.

Some observers have noted that the strong advertiser response to the Hogg tweet reflects a racial landscape in which media and the general public react far more strongly to crimes and offensive behavior that involves white victims.

That discussion is beyond the scope of this article, but among the other factors that may be at work, one is a simple matter of timing.

As recently as last October, when a gunman massacred 49 people at an outdoor concert in Las Vegas, gun "rights" lobbyists could still count on Ingraham and other Fox personalities to quash the voices of the victims and nullify calls for gun control. Here's a representative sample from Ingraham herself, on Twitter:

“All victims' bodies still not recovered and Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren kick into typical anti-gun stance. Gross.”

Fox and other conservatives succeeded in sweeping the Vegas killings off the mainstream media radar, but the episode was barely one month old before 25 people were killed at a small town church in Texas. The Parkland massacre took place on February 14, less than four months after that. Coming so close to one another, those three mass shootings may have helped build greater awareness that the public is exposed to random gun violence everywhere.

In that context, the corporate social responsibility movement has added fuel to the fire. CSR is now a mature, powerful force, and brands are on the lookout for opportunities to demonstrate leadership.

Savvy brands will jump on an opportunity to respond to public consensus on social issues, and Ingraham just handed over one such opportunity on a silver platter: she bullied a minor -- and a gun violence survivor -- online.

The Ingraham case combines gun control, toxic use of social media and a high profile media personality to create a tsunami of publicity for brands that want to be known for taking stands.

Whatever else happens to Ingraham's career, the episode should send a clear message to media. Brands are taking stands on social issues, and they are not shy about leveraging their advertising dollars to make their point.

Photo: Gage Skidmore/flickr.

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey