- - Monday, February 20, 2017


Despite producing huge amounts of value for society, businesses are among the most vilified institutions in America.

This contradiction plays out in real time as the media-activist complex treats businesses as evils to be tolerated — provided they comply with their regulatory and tax agenda — rather than a good to be celebrated.

What’s worse is that in a bizarre form of Stockholm Syndrome, company executives are often willing to work with activist groups to further the destruction of the business. This grants and legitimizes activists’ agendas. These concessions increase the stature and power of the disruptive players. Ayn Rand rightly nailed this syndrome as “the sanction of the victim.” This parasitical relationship ends only when the company does.

The latest company to display this syndrome is TripAdvisor. After months of negotiations with the radical activist group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), TripAdvisor is no longer selling tickets to certain attractions that involve interacting with animals, including elephant rides or swimming with dolphins. Can attacks and concessions on horseback riding be far behind?

Why is TripAdvisor siding with this tiny number of extremists over its customers and stakeholders? PETA and its close sibling, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), dream of a world where no animals are “enslaved” and no one is able to buy meat for human consumption. In short, no use of any animal by any standard imaginable.

Why did Trip Advisor elect to do a 180 on the attractions it had been promoting? Did some corporate executive wake up one morning with an epiphany about children in the same pool with dolphins (who enjoy human interaction, by the way)? By drinking the activist Kool-Aid, these executives are encouraging these twisted groups while discouraging their customer base from what have been popular vacation destinations. To say nothing of the fact that outside groups with no interest in their business would be happy if that enterprise was defunct.

The whole picture gets even more bizarre beyond the philosophy of the company. Consider that many animal attractions on TripAdvisor are highly rated. In fact, TripAdvisor itself awards a number of venues that have elephant rides or swim-with-dolphins activity a “Certificate of Excellence,” which is awarded to attractions that “consistently earn great reviews from travelers.” It’s a classic right hand versus left hand dysfunction.

Of course, TripAdvisor is just the latest in a long line of companies willing to cave to activist demands in the labor, food, environmental and animal spaces. For instance, HSUS has convinced nearly 100 companies to adopt cage-free egg practices despite the fact that science indicates chickens are subjected to more injuries from constant territory-establishing pecking.

Because of its size and potential influence on suppliers, McDonald’s is a major target and victim of the activists. Last year, McDonald’s announced it would move to 100 percent cage-free sourcing. In 2015, it announced it would increase its starting wage at its company-owned stores after intense pressure from labor unions (which has resulted in fewer starter jobs and more investment in ordering kiosks). In 2012, it announced it would eliminate individual maternity pens for pigs. These demands are intended to increase prices and consequently reduce consumer interest in buying the product.

The business executives who think that surrendering to activist groups will bring them short-term peace are correct. But it’s at the expense of the long-term harm that comes from putting a “kick me” sign on their back. When dealing with the conflict industry, appeasement never works. It only emboldens the enemy. Today’s focus on attractions with animal interactions will morph into campaigns that attack the “enslavement” of animals in zoos and fish in aquariums. Today’s cage-free eggs are tomorrow’s cheeseburgers.

Companies that want to see the logical endpoint of the activist agenda can look to Ringling Brothers circus, which is going out of business after 146 years following decades of pressure by animal rights groups. Or to SeaWorld, which is ending its signature orca performance shows after its “partnership” with the HSUS.

As long as companies grant activists the authority as social arbiters of what should be determined exploitation or unequal financial success, they will always be targeted for pressure campaigns. And as long as they give moral authority to their destroyers, they will always be shackled by them.

The morality of business is to maximize shareholder value by providing services and products that are responsive to consumers while being responsible stewards of our resources. And that last qualifier is not to be dictated by a handful of people with liberal arts degrees. The system that advances the human condition, benefits the economy, and is to thank for our incredible standard of living is not the result of these people.

Only when we remember and act on that reality will the activist parasite die before the host company they feed off for sustenance.

• Richard Berman is the president of Berman and Company, a public affairs firm in Washington, D.C.

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