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AT&T CEO Backs Black Lives Matter

Dan Jones
9/30/2016

AT&T's CEO has placed himself right in the the Black Lives Matter debate in the US, a move which was backed up by T-Mobile's CEO on Friday.

Video of AT&T's Randall Stephenson talking at the operator's Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) was posted by an attendee on September 24. In it, Stephenson talked extensively on the topic of racial tension in the US and how to start a discussion about it at AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T).

Watch the full video below:

"Racial tension is ripping apart the very fabric of our community right now," Stephenson told the crowd.

He explained that how he hadn't been full cognizant of the impact of the issue, until a close friend, an African American doctor and military veteran, Chris, talked to him about it.

"If two very close friends of different races don't talk openly about this issue... how do we expect to find common ground and solutions for what's a really serious, serious problem?" Stephenson asked the crowd to cheers and applause.

"When a person's struggling with what's been broadcast on our airwaves says 'black lives matter,' we should not say all lives matter'," the CEO told the crowd.

For context, if you live outside the US, the Black Lives Matter movement started in 2013 after a Florida man,George Zimmerman, was acquitted for shooting Trayvon Martin under that state's "Stand your ground" laws. It became bigger after police shootings of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, and lately Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Charlotte, N.C. It has become a hot-button issue in the already fractious US presidential election this year. (See Clinton Tech Plan Draws Sharp Contrast to Trump's Thinking and Trump's Telecom Policy? Who Knows?)

Stephenson talked of how proud he was that the company's employees are already very diverse but said more could be done. "If this is a dialogue that is going to happen at AT&T, I feel it probably ought to start with me," Stephenson said.

T-Mobile US Inc. CEO John Legere backed up Stephenson Friday, which is definitely a first, tweeting in response to a question on the CEO's speech:

In fact, this election has been much more visibly political for most of the major mobile service providers in the US than is usual. Sprint Corp. (NYSE: S) CEO Marcello Claure has gone on record to say that Republican Donald Trump is "too risky" to be president, and has held a fundraiser for Democrat Hillary Clinton in Miami Beach, Fla.

— Dan Jones, Mobile Editor, Light Reading

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DanJones
DanJones
10/3/2016 | 11:31:59 AM
Re: No brainer
Yeah.
cnwedit
cnwedit
10/1/2016 | 12:23:05 PM
Re: No brainer
If you listen to Stephenson's speech, he is saying it's time to start a conversation and that starts with him. Taking your head out of the sand on something like this should not be controversial. As he notes, AT&T already has a very diverse employee population and it is to the company's benefit for them to be able to work together.

To me, the real crux of the issue is at the end, when he says tolerance is for cowards, that different folks with different opinions need to talk to each other respectfully and understand each other, even if it makes them uncomfortable.

That's where progress is made, one-on-one, not in public forums or even message boards. 

This is what real leadership looks like. Stephenson is starting the conversation that has to happen if we are to move forward. 

 
mendyk
mendyk
10/1/2016 | 11:28:18 AM
Re: No brainer
Politics and business is a volatile mix, and one that can blow up slightly -- not exactly a development that advances shareholder interest, which is kind of Job 1 for a CEO. This is why most business leaders prefer the relative anonymity of donations through PACs and such.
inkstainedwretch
inkstainedwretch
9/30/2016 | 8:38:51 PM
No brainer
Corporations are people, my friend. Which means they have civic duties too. Backing up a significant segment of their employees and customers seems to me to be doing the right thing. Respect to Stephenson and Legere.

-- Brian Santo
Duh!
Duh!
9/30/2016 | 8:21:30 PM
Re: Should CEOs get involved?
The have to make a distinction between speaking for themselves (like showing up at a fundraiser) and speaking for the company (in an internal meeting). One requires business justification, the other requires only decency.
DanJones
DanJones
9/30/2016 | 8:13:48 PM
Re: Should CEOs get involved?
I kind of hope they had to speak up despite being CEOs, you know? Maybe that's naive...
Duh!
Duh!
9/30/2016 | 8:10:05 PM
Re: Should CEOs get involved?
It's usually not a great idea for CEOs of large corporations to get involved in controversial social issues.  The other side is always going to be offended and take their business elsewhere.

There is a solid business justification, though.  The issue touches on Diversity and Inclusion. CEOs hear a lot of that from their Chief Human Resource Officers: it's a major topic in HR World. There are plenty of slide decks that make a convincing case that Diversity and Inclusion is good for business.  Stephenson's speech would be expected to improve Engagement (another big HR topic - "Do you feel that the company cares about your concerns?") among African-American employees. 

It may alienate some customers, but a boycott seems unlikely -- especially if the mobile business presents a unified front.
DanJones
DanJones
9/30/2016 | 7:08:26 PM
Re: Should CEOs get involved?
I defintely think it makes sense to be this forthright personally when the majority of your workforce are residing in the US, and are a diverse bunch. I also think this election cycle is driving people to stake out positions they wouldn't normally feel the need to elucidate.
Mitch Wagner
Mitch Wagner
9/30/2016 | 7:01:28 PM
Re: Should CEOs get involved?
Extraordinary statement from Stephenson. I can't remember an incident where a CEO for as big a company came out so loudly on such a controversial issue. 

Well, other than Tim Cook on LGBTQ rights. But (a) Apple is different and (b) Cook has a personal stake in that one. Still, he was right on that issue and it took guts for him to do it. 

This statement makes me want to switch to AT&T. 

And Stephenson has put his finger on exactly why "all lives matter" stinks. 
DanJones
DanJones
9/30/2016 | 6:22:03 PM
Should CEOs get involved?
What do you think?
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