Skift Take

In the latest chapter of what has become a public relations nightmare for Delta Air Lines, CEO Ed Bastian, clearly bowing to pressure, forcefully condemned Georgia's new election law. He has faced intense blowback in recent days and calls for a boycott for his initial tepid response.

Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian bowed to public pressure on Wednesday, reversing course by calling the controversial new Georgia elections law “unacceptable” and not matching the airline’s values.

Previously, he would not commit to condemning the law that some criticize for being outright voter suppression. Activists immediately called for boycotting the Atlanta-based airline.

“After having time to now fully understand all that is in the bill, coupled with discussions with leaders and employees in the Black community, it’s evident that the bill includes provisions that will make it harder for many underrepresented voters, particularly Black voters, to exercise their constitutional right to elect their representatives,” Bastian said in Wednesday’s statement. “That is wrong.”

This is the latest chapter in a public relations nightmare that started for Delta last week, when its first statement on the law drew widespread criticism for appearing to praise some aspects of the legislation. The whole saga illustrates the PR landmines that await when a CEO weighs in on thorny social or political issues.

In response to increasing blowback both from outside the company and from employees, Bastian yesterday released an internal video, acknowledging employees’ disappointment in the initial statement. Delta, he said Tuesday, would have lost its ability to work with the state government to shape the legislation if the company had criticized the bill too forcefully and early. In fact, Delta and other Atlanta-based companies had worked with the state legislature to eliminate some of the most “egregious” measures in the original bill, including those that would have curtailed weekend voting and eliminated no-excuse absentee ballots.

On Wednesday, Bastian reiterated why Delta worked behind the scenes to shape the legislation in the first place. “The entire rationale for this bill was based on a lie: that there was widespread voter fraud in Georgia in the 2020 elections. This is simply not true,” he said. “Unfortunately, that excuse is being used in states across the nation that are attempting to pass similar legislation to restrict voting rights.”

His language defending Delta’s earlier lobbying effort also changed markedly. Bastian said Delta joined with other Atlanta companies to eliminate some of the more “suppressive” aspects of the original bill.

Georgia Governor Brian Kemp responded with fury to Bastian’s most recent statement, further illustrating the public relations peril awaiting CEOs on these issue. Lawmakers “spoke directly with Delta representatives numerous times” throughout the legislative process, Kemp said in a statement provided to Skift. “Today’s statement by Delta CEO Ed Bastian stands in stark contrast to our conversations with the company, ignores the content of the new law, and unfortunately continues to spread the same false attacks being repeated by partisan activists.”

Republicans in Georgia, upset that the state voted in November to elect President Joseph Biden and Senators Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, all Democrats, and responding to former President Donald Trump’s baseless claims that his defeat in November was due to widespread fraud, rushed through a bill that many say restricts minority access to the polls. Kemp signed the bill into law last week. Biden called the law “sick” and “un-American,” and voting rights activist Stacy Abrams characterized it as “Jim Crow in a suit and tie.”

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Tags: delta air lines, Ed Bastian

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