Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Tina Casey headshot

Corporate Leaders Caught in the Middle of COVID-19 Misdirection

By Tina Casey

The Big Three U.S. automakers officially restarted their production lines on May 18. The meticulously planned day was carefully coordinated in collaboration with labor unions, health experts and other stakeholders. The joint effort was intended to demonstrate best practices for protecting worker safety in other U.S. industries during the COVID-19 outbreak. It should have been a shining moment for brand reputation.

Unfortunately, all did not go according to plan. Instead, the Big Three reopening served as another reminder that corporations must act more aggressively to uphold the basic principles of social responsibility when elected leaders drop the ball.

Planning ahead for a safe return to work

The Big Three automakers — Ford, General Motors, and Fiat Chrysler — were among scores of leading U.S. companies that President Trump named on April 14, when he announced the formation of “Great American Economic Revival Industry Groups.” The participants were tasked with laying plans for reopening workplaces that had been shuttered in the effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Apparently the Big Three took their mission seriously. Working with experts, they agreed on a phased-in approach and circulated new safety guidelines under the title, “Return to Work Manufacturing Playbook.”

In an online introduction, Ford listed its human resources, manufacturing operations, corporate medical and safety, labor affairs, and purchasing among the internal divisions involved.

Ford also emphasized that the guidelines are “based upon the guidance provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Department of Health and Human Services pursuant to the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), and the World Health Organization (WHO).”

In addition, Ford has previously drawn attention to its collaboration with labor unions and other groups on COVID-19 safety, as well as its experience in restarting operations in China and the European Union.

Ford, GM and Fiat Chrysler have also gathered experience in disease prevention while deploying their facilities to manufacture medical supplies during the COVID-19 outbreak, in the U.S. and elsewhere.

In short, the table was set to demonstrate U.S. manufacturing resilience at its finest.

One less mask, more hot water for Ford

Against this backdrop, on May 21 President Trump visited Ford’s Rawsonville Components Plant in Ypsilanti, Michigan, which is currently manufacturing medical supplies.

According to numerous news reports, the president wore a mask initially but removed it later in the visit.

In doing so, the president violated Ford’s safety protocols and undermined weeks of effort. He also ignored health experts from multiple agencies within his own administration, as if to publicly challenge their ability to render any useful guidance at all.

Speaking truth to power in the age of COVID-19: it’s complicated

Ford has been criticized for not ejecting the president when he violated clearly established rules for visiting the plant. At the least, the company could have terminated the visit before the president appeared in public without a mask.

They probably wish they had done so. In his public remarks, Trump evoked the virulent anti-Semitism of Ford’s founder, Henry Ford, who deployed both his newspaper and the company’s dealerships to spread his ideas.

To be fair, though, the stage for accommodating the president had already been set. The whole visit was in apparent violation of Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s COVID-19 safety orders, which included suspending factory tours and other nonessential visits.

However, on May 19 the Detroit Free Press reported that Whitmer would not attempt to prevent the president from visiting Michigan.

Brand reputation in the age of COVID-19

So, what will happen the next time the president requests to visit a business that is enforcing strict workplace safety guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19?

Based on his behavior in Ypsilanti, the answer should be a polite but firm “no.”

Presidents come and go, but the lifespan of a leading brand lasts for generations. After months of suffering, death, and economic upheaval, the president has yet to articulate a consistent message on COVID-19 prevention. Meanwhile, he flouts official orders against non-essential travel, and ignores workplace safety requirements that protect workers and the public against a potentially fatal disease.

CEOs at leading companies have already been tested by the president’s policies on LGBTQ rights, immigration issues, racism and gun control and other areas where the direct impact on human life is distant or difficult to quantify precisely. 

With COVID-19, there is no such difficulty. The numbers are there in black and white, and the lethal consequences of presidential misdirection are literally stalking the factory floor.

Image credit: Ford Motor Co.

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