(Bloomberg) -- One corporate executive after another stepped away from President Donald Trump’s councils this week, crediting their conscience, their values and “doing the right thing.”
That’s only part of the story, says Rashad Robinson, the 38-year-old executive director of Color of Change, which orchestrated a public social-media campaign urging executives at PepsiCo Inc., Campbell Soup Co., General Motors Co. and other companies to #quitthecouncil. After two days and more than 225,000 messages, two business groups advising the president were disbanded.
It was the biggest victory yet for Robinson and the 12-year-old racial-justice group that’s increasing pressure on companies to promote social change. In the past year, its campaigns persuaded firms to eschew financial support of the Republican National Convention, pull their advertising from “The O’Reilly Factor” on Fox News Channel and exit the right-wing policy group ALEC.
Now, with Trump’s councils dissolved, Robinson is asking the organization’s 1.2 million active members to turn their tweets toward Visa Inc., Mastercard Inc. and Discover Financial Services, pushing them to more aggressively cut off payments to hate groups.
“Folks are seeing what’s happening, and they have feelings about it,’’ Robinson said. He expects the group’s budget to hit $10 million this year, up from $1 million when he became executive director in 2011. Its biggest funders include the Ford Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, George Soros’s Open Society Foundations and Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz’s Open Philanthropy Project.
“We have a long track record of winning and finding the right ways to leverage everyday people’s energy, so I think that helps folks feel comfortable engaging with us,” he said. “It also makes corporations increasingly return our calls.’’
There’s a long history of consumers and investors applying pressure on companies to effect social change. But while the grape boycott in the 1970s or divestment from South Africa under apartheid took years to have an impact, targeted companies and executives today aren’t necessarily waiting to see if protests take a financial toll.
Under pressure coordinated by two activist groups, Sleeping Giants and SumOfUs, more than 2,000 companies have stopped advertising on the right-wing website Breitbart News, said Nicole Carty, a senior campaigner for SumOfUs. GrabYourWallet -- the name refers to Trump’s vulgar comments about women that were disclosed during the campaign -- uses social media to urge its 63,000 followers to boycott companies that sell Trump products.
“We’re living in a golden age of naked consumer pressure on companies to bend in one or another social direction,” said Michael Santoro, a professor of business ethics at Santa Clara University in California. When executives decided to quit Trump’s councils, “it’s clear that they have an eye both on what is right and on the bottom line.”
Color of Change is hoping for a repeat of #quitthecouncil with #NoBloodMoney, its campaign to target payment companies. The group has already been working with Discover, Visa and Mastercard, but Robinson said he’s not convinced that current actions have been sufficient.
Visa, the world’s largest payments network, reviewed the list of hate sites, religious organizations and political groups provided to it by “concerned organizations,” and took down those that violated the merchant acquirer’s acceptable-use policies or were engaging in illegal activities, the company said Wednesday.
American Express Co. said its card isn’t accepted at any of the sites mentioned in an earlier Color of Change petition. Mastercard said it’s in the process of “shutting down the use of our cards on sites that we believe incite violence,” and the company looks forward to discussing that list of sites with Color of Change next week, according to a statement from spokesman Seth Eisen.
“The question is what are they classifying as violent and how are they making that determination,’’ Robinson said, citing what he considered more complete cooperation from PayPal Holdings Inc. to identify specific sites being cut off. “They may be saying something isn’t violent that actually is.”
Online activism, once dismissed by critics as “clicktavism” or “slacktavism,” has become a first step to “move folks up a ladder of engagement,’’ from tweets and petitions to phone calls, door-knocking and attending rallies, he said.
Color of Change was founded in 2005 by James Rucker, formerly of the left-leaning MoveOn.org, and Van Jones, now a CNN commentator, after Hurricane Katrina, with a goal of increasing the power of black people in politics.
Robinson joined the organization in 2011 after six years at GLAAD (formerly the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation). That organization recruited him after Robinson’s stint as the youngest participant on Montel Williams’s Showtime reality show “American Candidate,” a program where the audience chose -- and eliminated -- prospective candidates.
The son of a ceramic-tile contractor for high-end homes on eastern Long Island, Robinson said he remembered helping his grandfather vote, reading the list of candidates aloud and pulling the lever. He later learned that his grandfather, formerly a sharecropper, needed his help because he couldn’t read.
Robinson said his opponents favor a popular photo that makes him look angry and menacing. He says he’s anything but, pointing out that it’s hard to be menacing when you’re 5-foot-3 with dimples.
The activist groups have been in large measure responsible for pointing corporations in socially responsible directions, said Santoro, the Santa Clara University ethics professor. Still, it gives him and others pause.
“Business runs the risk of getting caught up in this change of sentiment and gray areas, especially if they have been vocal before,” said Kabrina Chang, clinical associate professor at the Questrom School of Business at Boston University. She has done research on the rising role of companies supporting social causes.
“As with many controversial topics, there are always voices on the extreme ends that push it into unreasonable and unproductive places,” Chang said.