Abstract: Making Business Fashionable: American Corporate Leaders and Their Discontents in the 1970s

Benjamin Waterhouse


During the 1970s, American business leaders—at individual firms and through large employers' associations—mobilized collectively against political movements that they believed threatened business's legal prerogatives and social standing. This quest for positive public relations formed an integral part of overall corporate strategy during a time of acute economic stress. This paper explores the mobilization of major Washington-based employers' associations against a particular public relations threat—a series of protests and demonstrations organized by labor, consumer, and environmental groups and known as "Big Business Day," in April 1980. Drawing on records of such groups as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, housed at the Hagley Museum in Wilmington, Delaware, I argue that organized employers successfully blunted the effectiveness of "Big Business Day" through grassroots organizing and extensive collaboration among organizations. Moreover, the collective voice of business consciously manipulated the rhetoric surrounding "Big Business Day," tying together in public debate the interests of business and society at large and casting business's antagonists as "special interests." Corporate leaders' collective efforts to influence political discourse in the name of public relations constituted an essential part of their overall management strategies in the late twentieth century.