This week, we observed the one-year anniversary of the evil, senseless, tragic mass murder at Parkland High School in Florida. 

That timeline also means we're now at the one-year point after a less-important but still-memorable event: the pressure that Delta Air Lines and other large corporations faced to end their preferences for members of the NRA.

Delta, as you might recall, announced it would end its discount program for NRA members -- and it faced an immediate backlash for doing so. Among the ramifications was that Georgia politicians, in retaliation, rescinded an estimated $40 million in state tax exemptions that Delta was counting on.

This week, Delta's CEO, Ed Bastian, explained how it all came about. His forum: a fascinating and to-the-point interview on LinkedIn.

"The kids at Parkland"

Bastian sat down with Daniel Roth, LinkedIn's editor in chief, for a video interview recently, a portion of which Roth posted Friday on LinkedIn.

Among the highlights -- the part that truly surprised me, to be honest -- is that Bastian admitted he only even learned that Delta offered an NRA discount because of the research and activism that Parkland students engaged in after the tragedy.

"I didn't even know the discount existed," Bastian told Roth. "The way I found out about the discount [was] from the kids at Parkland."

As Bastian expanded, he had found the NRA's rhetoric after the shooting to be "divisive." But Parkland students who became almost instant activists in favor of gun control contacted him directly.

"I think the fact that our kids were able to have a voice is so cool," he said, adding, "The kids went out and found who are the companies that somehow do business [with the NRA]. ... Because I was accessible, they came directly to me, and within a day of saying this I said, 'We just can't be doing this. This is just not who we are.'"

''If you choose not to decide ... "

His decision prompted a real backlash. It's a classic example of how brands in the second decade of the 21st century simply can't be neutral on many political issues -- even if they'd like to or even intend to.

The problem from a brand's point of view is that in an age of social media, fans and critics are likely to demand that companies take a stand. And the mere fact of not taking a stand becomes a stand in itself.

At the risk of dating myself, it's like a classic Rush lyric: "If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice."

Bastian said he decided to act quickly, and that while he "talked to a few people I was close to," he didn't consult Delta's board. 

"This is something that you need to move when you see it. And if you see it and you freeze, that speaks for you too," he said, adding separately: "While the decision wasn't easy, it was a quick one. You know, $40 million -- our brand is worth so much more."

"I wouldn't have changed a thing"

The good news for Delta? Opponents of the airline's decision might still be upset, but you don't hear about the NRA discount much anymore.

Also, even though the state of Georgia made a big deal about pulling Delta's tax discounts -- prompting other states to try to attract Delta to relocate its headquarters -- the state eventually came around and more quietly restored them.

In the end, it didn't really cost Delta anything to stand up to the NRA, and it probably gained a lot of net positive brand equity for discontinuing a discount that reportedly only about 13 people had ever used anyway.

"I look back, and, yes, there are learnings," Bastian said of the decision and the controversy. "There are learnings in everything you do. But I wouldn't have changed a thing."

Published on: Feb 17, 2019
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