The U.S. Chamber of Commerce hasn’t exactly minced its words in opposing the cap-and-trade legislation winding its way from the House to the Senate. The measure, it says, will kill jobs and lead to a slowing of business and thus, the economy. The national business group has used the same reasoning to lobby heavily against the Environmental Protection Agency’s additional efforts to limit emissions.
Yet it’s becoming increasingly clear that not all of the organization’s members agree with that stance. It has about 3 million dues-paying businesses, but a growing number of large companies have jumped ship, canceling their subscriptions to the chamber’s business associations and lobby services. The slide started with utility giant PG&E lamenting the chamber’s "obstructionist tactics" on cap-and-trade. Two more large utility companies, PNM and Exelon, followed suit, along with Nike, which resigned its spot on the chamber’s board. Then, just as Silicon Valley was buzzing about which tech company would be the first to break ranks on the issue of climate, Apple announced early today that it, too, would be parting ways with the chamber. Effective immediately.
Apple pays, or paid, dues to the chamber each year (a company spokesperson declined to say how much). But whatever the amount, the most serious damage to the chamber is not on its balance sheet, but to its reputation. To argue that limiting carbon would be bad for business becomes much tougher when those you claim to represent publicly disagree, and distribute press releases about it.
It’s unclear what the chamber thinks about exodus of powerful members. A chamber spokesperson did not respond to NEWSWEEK’s requests for comment, as well as other publications’, although in a statement the group released last week, president Tom Donohue clarified that yes, he'd like to reduce emissions, just not if it harms the American economy and not the rest of the world's. But if left unaddressed, the list of members leaving could get bigger. Johnson & Johnson says that it plans to stay put for the time being, but considering a not-so-subtle letter J&J sent to Donohue earlier this year urging that he begin to speak for all, not just some, of its members, any future tension could crack an already fragile relationship. Other power hitters, including General Electric and the San Jose Chamber of Commerce have also publicly stated that the U.S. Chamber doesn’t represent their views on climate change.
In the world of PR, how big is a problem like this? “It’s devastating,” says crisis PR expert Marina Ein. “I suspect that all of the [chamber] membership is asking itself at this point, Who’s leading us, and why aren’t more efforts being made to find consensus." Crisis communications usually involves people being surprised, for one reason or another. This was an issue, says Ein, they probably should have seen coming.
UPDATE: 5:25 p.m.: The chamber got back to us, calling Apple's decision "just hard politics." Chamber President Tom Donohue also wrote to Apple's leadership expressing regret that Apple "didn't take the time to understand the chamber's position on climate and forfeited the opportunity to advance a 21st-century approach to climate change."