Two related stories from business and sports in the last couple of days deal with the issue of how outspoken public figures can afford to be. At core is a long-standing cliche of fame - conventional wisdom wants leaders to have clarity of expression but it punishes them mercilessly if that clarity offends someone.
Reuters News covered that from a pure business standpoint by analyzing how many CEOs would be willing to comment on either Warren Buffet's call for higher taxes or Howard Schultz's call for a boycott of political donations. Upshot: not many. Reporters Ben Berkowitz and Lisa Baertlein find this sad.
While Schultz has managed to get NYSE Euronext Chief Executive Duncan Niederauer andNasdaq OMX Group Chief Executive Robert Greifeld to pledge their support for his proposal, it isn't easy to find many others.
Reuters contacted more than three dozen politicians, CEOs, investors and celebrities on Tuesday to get their views on the Buffett and Schultz positions and almost all of them either declined to comment or did not return calls.
They do find a few business leaders from across the political spectrum who are outpoken (including libertarian T.J. Rodgers) but overall seem to be upset that more CEOs aren't using their bully pulpits to advance political agendas.
The answer why actually ran in The Wall Street Journal's Sports section a day earlier - in this article about Mets Pitcher Mike Pelfrey who got into trouble with the fans and the media for admitting in public that he didn't think the Mets had a good enough team to win the World Series this year.
But candor has become so rare in sports that when an athlete actually says what he thinks, it makes waves. Fans and broadcasters alike immediately criticized Pelfrey for his comments and the defeatist attitude they supposedly revealed. Teammate Jason Bay told him to watch what he says.
In an era when just donating money to a political campaign got Target picketed in its home state of Minnesota and government spending at the Federal level drives so many business and investment decision, is it any wonder that business leaders don't want to invite that kind of abuse?
Like WSJ sports writer Brian Costa, as well as Berkowitz and Baertlein, I too would like to live in a world where athletes and CEOs alike could speak their minds and get respect from all sides for making rational arguments - but that's not how it works. Ask John Mackey of Whole Foods about what happened to his company when he came out against Obamacare.
As a public relations professional, I tend to let politically concerned clients vent a bit and then help them walk back to neutral language that gets them in the paper without calling down protests from either MoveOn.org or the Tea Party.
Some of the most frustrating assignments are ones where the client wants to launch an avowedly political activity - such as remaking the U.S. education system - without saying they favor one party or the other or putting forward any idea someone might disagree with.
How many times have I had to tell a client that if they want to write an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal that "Your article can't just 'explain the issue.' It can't just 'focus on the positive of what you want to achieve.' There has to be something you are for, and something you are against. Otherwise, we are looking for another vehicle to communicate your idea." There is a reason I've only placed one Wall Street Journal Op-ed in my career despite the hundreds of impressive thought leaders I've worked with while during the same time managed to get four letters printed on the same page over my own byline.