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General Mills is taking a stand against a proposed state constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, becoming the most prominent corporate voice making such a public declaration.
Chief executive Ken Powell voiced the company's opposition Wednesday at a General Mills function attended by 400 gay and lesbian professionals, followed Thursday by a Web letter from the company's vice president for global diversity and inclusion, Ken Charles.
"We do not believe the proposed constitutional amendment is in the best interests of our employees or our state economy," Charles wrote. "We value diversity. We value inclusion."
Taking a corporate position on such a politically charged issue as gay marriage is a risky move for a big company like Golden Valley-based General Mills, with such well known brands as Cheerios and Yoplait.
Yet companies nationwide are increasingly taking pro-gay marriage stances and going public on other political issues, marketing and public relations experts say.
Heather LaMarre, a professor in the University of Minnesota's School of Journalism, said that historically companies have followed a "don't-speak-unless-you-have-to" strategy when it comes to controversial political issues. "But we're in a new public relations mode."
General Mills is the second major Minnesota-based company to come out against the amendment, which will be on the November ballot. Medical device maker St. Jude Medical first expressed opposition, as have Carlson Chairwoman Marilyn Carlson Nelson, former Medtronic CEO Bill George and longtime Minneapolis businessman and politician Wheelock Whitney.
At the same time, the National Organization for Marriage, a key group supporting the marriage amendment, sent letters to 50 of the state's largest companies, urging them to remain neutral on the measure. On its website Thursday, the group, which is boycotting Starbucks for its gay marriage stance, blasted General Mills for declaring "war on marriage."
John Helmberger, chairman of Minnesota for Marriage, the group pushing the amendment, said he was also very disappointed.
"Marriage is in the interest of children, because it is society's best way to help children experience the ideal environment where they are raised by their mother and father," Helmberger said. "It's ironic and regrettable that a corporation that makes billions marketing cereal to parents of children would take the position that marriage should be redefined."
The lead group fighting the amendment praised General Mills' decision. "The business case against this amendment is straightforward and powerful," said Richard Carlbom, campaign manager for Minnesotans United for All Families.
General Mills declined to make Powell available for comment. A spokeswoman said the company doesn't normally contribute financially to ballot-measure campaigns, but General Mills declined to say whether or not it has specifically made contributions to defeat the marriage amendment.
General Mills' Charles wrote that "obviously, there are strongly held views on both sides. We acknowledge those views, including those on religious grounds," he said. "We respect and defend the right of others to disagree. But we truly value diversity and inclusion - and that makes our choice clear."
While North Carolina-based corporations were largely silent on that state's recently passed amendment banning gay marriage, companies have otherwise been increasingly vocal against such bans, said Fred Sainz, a vice president at the Human Rights Campaign, a large gay rights group.
Almost 50 companies including Nike, Xerox and Time Warner Cable, signed a court briefing against the federal Defense of Marriage Act, saying it hampered their businesses. The law, which limits marriage to a union between a man and woman, was deemed unconstitutional this month by a federal appeals court.
Last year, two dozen top executives in New York, including the heads of Goldman Sachs and media giant Viacom, came out in favor of an effort in that state to approve same-sex marriage. Starbucks, Amazon, Microsoft and Boeing did likewise in Washington state regarding a same-sex marriage bill there.
Social media have helped change the environment, with consumers and employees putting pressure on companies via the Web, forcing them to take more public stands, said LeMarre, a specialist in political public relations. The U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, which lifted the ban on corporate campaign spending, has played a role, too.
Still, LaMarre said such moves can be "very risky from a public relations standpoint" -- particularly for consumer products companies. General Mills has long had a commitment to equality for its gay workers and is located in a gay-friendly metro area, both of which help it attract the best and brightest from a global employment market, LaMarre said.
But "that doesn't necessarily translate well to a brand image that is being sold to conservative families across the nation," she said.
Akshay Rao, a marketing professor at the University of Minnesota, said the Citizens United decision has enabled political campaigns to put more pressure on corporations to take sides.
Target took considerable heat in 2010 for a $150,000 donation to Minnesota Forward, a pro-business group backing Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer. Because of Emmer's stance on gay marriage, many perceived Target's donation as contrary to the company's longstanding commitment to workplace equality.
"It was a surprise because it ran counter to expectations," Rao said. But General Mills' position on gay marriage is not a surprise. "They have effectively 'quote-unquote' come out of the closet," Rao said.
Mike Hughlett • 612-673-7003