The silence is deafening from corporate America on Roe v. Wade. Why so many companies are staying quiet

Pro-choice demonstrator holds a "NEVER AGAIN" sign outside the Supreme Court
Roe v. Wade has been a topic too hot to touch for many companies. (Photo credit: Getty Images)

Brands such as Levi Strauss and Yelp are in the minority in issuing strongly worded condemnations of the Supreme Court’s likely decision to overturn the landmark case.

You’d be forgiven for thinking the likely move by the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade — a landmark case that legalized abortion nationwide in 1973 and was celebrated as a major step forward for women’s rights — would have generated more response from corporate America. Especially given the rise of purpose communications and brands taking a stand on social issues from gender income equality to gay marriage and police brutality against Black Americans. 

And yet, brands like Levi Strauss and Yelp are in the minority in issuing strongly-worded condemnations about the highest court in the nation taking away a woman’s right to abortion. 

The plan came to light after a draft of a majority opinion by Justice Samuel Alito in the case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization was leaked to Politico. The media outlet published parts of it on the evening of May 2. Quickly, it became the top story on every media. 

“Roe was egregiously wrong from the start,” writes Alito. “We hold that Roe and [Planned Parenthood v.] Casey must be overruled. It is time to heed the Constitution and return the issue of abortion to the people’s elected representatives.” 

While most of corporate America was quiet, Yelp issued a lengthy statement the following day, condemning any reversal of the almost 50-year-old ruling. 

“Overturning Roe v. Wade will jeopardize the human rights of millions of women…turning back the clock on the progress women have made over the past 50 years will have a seismic impact on our society and economy,” it reads in part. 

The statement also calls on Congress to “codify these rights in law.” 

Seeing few, if any, other brands making similar stances, Yelp called on them to speak up. “More companies will need to step up to safeguard their employees, and provide equal access to the health services they need no matter where they live,” the company said. 

The CEO of Yelp, Jeremy Stoppelman, also took aim at business leaders in a May 5 op-ed in Fast Company, after the crowd-sourced review and social networking site was approached by the outlet. 

Stoppelman writes: “Remaining silent on the issue of reproductive rights flies in the face of any public pledges professing a desire to create more diverse and inclusive companies.” The op-ed is titled, “Why companies need to take a stand on reproductive rights.”

Yelp has a history of standing up for reproductive rights; last September and October, the Yelp Foundation double-matched employee donations to select organizations fighting the anti-abortion legislation, SB8, in Texas. 

The company has also added travel benefits for employees and their dependants if they need to go out-of-state for abortion care. 

Levi Strauss & Co. also made a statement on May 3. “Protecting access to the full range of reproductive health care, including abortion, is a critical business issue,” it reads. “Efforts to further restrict or criminalize that access would have far-reaching consequences for the American workforce, the U.S. economy and our nation’s pursuit of gender and racial equity.” 

With its statement, Levi included data points attributable to it, including the fact that women who seek abortion but can’t access it are four times more likely to subsequently end up in poverty. 

It also called on the rest of corporate America: “Given what is at stake, business leaders need to make their voices heard and act to protect the health and well-being of our employees.” 

On May 4, Levi also penned a blog entitled, “Protecting Reproductive Rights – A Business Imperative.” 

So where are other brands? 

A number of articles in mainstream media, including The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post and Fortune, have noted the quiet from corporate America. Fortune, for instance, said it contacted 30 of “the most powerful companies in America” and reported that few offered any comment on Roe v. Wade. 

Pam Jenkins, chief public affairs officer at Weber Shandwick, says companies are looking internally first.

“At this stage on this issue, we’re seeing companies prioritize their workforce first — particularly women in their workforce — before they decide to make any kind of public statement,” she says. “Many companies are reviewing and adapting their healthcare policies to ensure access to reproductive healthcare services should Roe v. Wade be overturned and as states enact trigger laws and then focusing on communicating their commitments or changes in policies to employees.”

Some companies are also getting counsel from their PR agency partners to be tight-lipped. Perhaps they fear a consumer backlash, like Disney endured when its CEO, Bob Chapek, spoke out against Florida’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law. 

Amy Sezak, SVP of corporate comms at Yelp, posted on LinkedIn that “a well-known PR firm sent their roster of clients a blanket recommendation to stay quiet on Roe v. Wade,” referring to the blowback Zeno Group received for a strategy memo.

“I was incredibly disappointed to see that,” wrote Sezak. “Great business leaders and corporate communicators know that at times like this you should be guided by your values. You can't say that you're for women's rights and gender equity in the workplace, and then stay silence on reproductive rights.” 

PRWeek reached out to a dozen major PR agencies, and all but Interpublic Group-owned Weber Shandwick declined to make an executive available for comment. 

Justine Griffin, principal at Rasky Partners, is not surprised by the reticence on both the agency and client side. “It is just about the most fraught issue that there is,” says Griffin, noting people have gray areas in their position. 

For instance, some people may consider themselves to be pro-life, but don’t like the idea of taking a woman’s right to make choices about her own body. Or some people may be pro-choice, but have reservations about that choice the further along a woman is in her pregnancy. 

“It’s a very complicated issue, because people who are pro-choice still have some qualms about abortion and people who are pro-life have qualms about restricting women,” says Griffin. 

Still, she says some brands should — and need to — speak out. 

“The set of companies that should be commenting [against the overturn] are those who are already very progressive, whose value system is part of their identity and would be inconsistent with their brands if they didn’t,” says Griffin. “Then there’s a set of brands who will be pushed into it because of their geography.” 

That includes large companies with employees in Texas, which last year signed into a law a ban on abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. Some far-right members of the House also want to prevent pregnant Texans from seeking abortions in other states. 

Some of those companies may want to take a page from the U.S. Air Force, which offered to relocate employee families from states with anti-trans laws, and do the same for employees in states where abortion becomes outlawed. 

She notes this communication can be positioned “about the health of their people rather than a political statement.” 

“Silence can feel deafening,” says Caroline Dettman, founding partner of Have Her Back Consulting, a women-owned culture consultancy backed by IPG, and a former Golin executive. “But the companies we are working with are using this silence in service to thoughtfully and intentionally find and lead a way forward.” 

“What is critically important right now,” adds Dettman, “is for companies to decide the actions that they will take to support women. Because if Roe is overturned, companies are going to be expected by their employees and customers to take thoughtful action.” 

It remains to be seen what policies multinational PR agencies will adopt if in some states their staff would be prevented from abortion care. 

But at least one agency contacted by PRWeek has made its stance known to staff. Highwire PR, which has teams in San Francisco, New York City, Boston and Chicago and a presence in 12 states, sent a company-wide email on May 6 opposing the likely ruling.

“This decision is wrong and if implemented will take away fundamental rights that have been established over the last 50 years,” reads the email, which also notes an overturning of Roe v. Wade would most impact “people of color and low-income communities” and be “catastrophic,” opening up more rulings to be overturned, like on same-sex marriage. 

Noting companies need to provide equal access to health services, the email says Highwire is “actively looking at what we can do to support that goal and are talking to our HR partners and operations team on the most effective strategies. This may include offering travel stipends or other methods of providing access.” 

In an email to PRWeek, Kathleen Gratehouse, a principal at Highwire reiterated that the firm is “looking for the right way to support our team,” and notes “travel costs are likely to be just one of many things we are going to need to consider.”

This story was updated on May 12 to correct the timing of when Yelp added employee benefits.

This story first appeared on PRWeek US.

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