Spicing up the political discourse

Penzey calls on CEOs to join him as he reiterates critique of Trump, GOP

Penzey's spices ... and messages (Photo: Melanie Conklin)
Penzey's spices ... and messages (Photo: Melanie Conklin)

Bill Penzey’s ongoing campaign against President Donald Trump and the Republican Party has taken a new turn, as the famously outspoken Wisconsin spice purveyor is urging CEOs to climb on board the anti-Trump train.

Since Trump’s election in 2016, the founder and CEO of Penzeys Spices hasn’t been shy about expressing his dismay, not just at the president, whom he has called a racist, but at a wide range of policies advanced by conservative Republican lawmakers and the trends he says that they’ve enabled. He’s criticized gun violence and the proliferation of firearms, Fox News, poor teacher pay, the Republican-led attempts to abolish the Affordable Care Act and the Trump administration’s handling of immigration at the Mexican border. And he’s celebrated political victories on the blue side of the political spectrum.

Over the Feb. 22 weekend, Penzey addressed corporate chief executives in one of his periodic Facebook messages to customers and the rest of the world. “In these last few weeks, in the wake of Republicans refusing to hold the president responsible for his crimes, any sense that this will all get better on its own has gone out the window,” Penzey wrote. 

It wasn’t the first time Penzey has addressed fellow CEOs, but it was possibly his most direct call to action.

Penzey is urging CEOs to join him on April 18 — chosen because it’s the anniversary of Paul Revere’s famous night ride to warn Massachusetts of a British invasion — in speaking up against Trump and the Republicans.

“At a minimum, every business can communicate to its employees the importance of voting, and most can safely communicate that importance to its customers as well,” he writes. “For all the scariness of these times, the good news is that it’s really only 30-40 million Americans (a little over 10%) who are drunk on the propaganda arm of the Republican Party.”

Kati Tusinski Berg, a professor and chair of the strategic communications department at Marquette University’s Diederich College of Communications, says Penzey has spiced his customer communications with social justice messages since long before Trump’s election, and long before the advent of social media, putting personal op-ed messages in the company’s print catalogs.

Marquette University Professor Kati Berg
Marquette University Professor Kati Tusinski Berg (Photo courtesy of Prof. Berg)

“Bill Penzey is not the only CEO speaking out,” Berg tells the Wisconsin Examiner in an email message. “Over the past few years, we have watched CEOs forcefully speaking out when US public policy issues run counter to their companies’ values — same-sex marriage, the Affordable Care Act, DACA, gun control, immigration, climate change, etc. Public stances regarding controversial social-political issues by executive leaders of major organizations seems to be increasingly commonplace, especially at a time when younger generations of socially conscious and digital-media savvy consumers and their own employees demand it.”

Declining trust in institutions and a fractious political climate may actually be encouraging the trend, she adds. “Consumers look to brands to step up and take the lead in effecting change. I do not believe that silence is an option. And while CEOs don’t have a playbook on activism, they can effectively communicate their values to a range of stakeholders.”

In his missive Penzey tells CEOs, “Everything America is as a country and as a force for good in the world are in this moment at great risk. Now you have the opportunity to do what is right and stand in the long line of American heroes.”

Penzeys 'Forward!' spice
Penzeys ‘Forward!’ spice (Photo: Melanie Conklin)

Addressing those who might fear a risk to the bottom line for speaking out, he writes that when he decided to use his corporate platform as a pulpit to protest “this administration’s racism, its cruelty, and its corruption,” he assumed it wouldn’t be good for sales. But that turned out to be wrong.

“And as much as I believed this would cost us business and we would pay a price for our activism, what we’ve found on the other side was something unexpected,” Penzey writes. “Today, doing the right thing for humanity is doing the right thing for business as well.”

He quotes from a customer’s email message. The opening line:“Penzeys will FOREVER have my business.”

Erik Gunn
Senior Reporter Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, along with related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.