A reader using the pseudonym “Veritas” challenged me with regard to my post about Coca Cola and King & Spalding’s (K&S) abandonment of its client, the U.S. House of Representatives, after K&S had already accepted the representation and filed litigation documents in a DOMA case on the House’s behalf.
“Veritas” points out various public boycotts that Focus on the Family has supported or called for over the years. Those boycotts were designed to first publicize, and then, hopefully get private corporations to change certain family-unfriendly policies that we and their customers cared very deeply about. “Veritas” wants to know if those boycotts are also “bullying,” which is the word I used to describe how a gay activist organization, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), reportedly used Coca Cola Corporation and other K&S clients to talk K&S into dumping the House of Representatives as a client.
Let’s put to one side for the moment the fact that what K&S ultimately did might be a breach of attorney ethics. That would be a major problem all by itself.
The plain fact is that boycotts are different than bullying. How?
First, boycotts are a time-honored American tradition. They are out in the open, no secrets. Very grassroots-oriented. Masses of people influencing how a company they purchase goods or services from operates. Companies that positively respond to their customers in those cases will reap the financial rewards down the road. And what’s best about it? The companies can brag about it, issue press releases, and benefit from all the publicity.
On the other hand, there are those behind-the-scenes economic threats – actual or implied – by a few politically connected and/or financially well-off customers or clients. Nobody’s willing to publicly talk about what happened. Well, that’s power politics at its ugliest, and – let’s face it – that’s bullying. If it’s not, then why won’t anyone come clean and tell the whole story?
So – How to tell the difference between a boycott and bullying in this instance?
If HRC had issued a press release calling for Americans (or even just its own mailing list) to stop sending business to K&S until it changed its ways, that’s a boycott.
If several major K&S clients* started making calls to K&S at HRC’s request, however, and K&S suddenly bows out with a lame excuse about not vetting the case properly, that’s bullying.
Bottom line: If the story’s got big money, secrecy, and a sudden change of heart, it’s not a boycott, it’s bullying.
*One caveat about this particular case: All we’ve publicly heard about – through investigative journalism rather than press release – is Coke. But the silence from K&S, Coke and its other clients right now – in the face of HRC’s public bragging – is deafening.