It’s been a nasty political campaign season this year, which seems to have brought out the worst behavior in the candidates and their supporters. When you, as a small business owner, jump on your soapbox to support political or other socially flammable issues, when is it good for your business and when is it bad?
Free speech is a fundamental right in our country, and it is your right, as an individual, to address whatever issues you feel are important. But, when you are the public face of your business, the public may assume that your views are also the views of your business. No one will say you must give up your right to your opinions, but think of the repercussions when you exercise those rights.
When you’re in the voting booth, your choice for a candidate is confidential. When you sign a petition, contribute $200 or more to a campaign, share your views on a social media posting, or even as much as click “like” on a Facebook post, your views have become public. And in today’s social media frenzy, where mob hysteria rules, your point of view can spread faster than a wildfire in ways you can’t control.
When I started working as a reporter, a wise mentor told me, “Don’t ever share your views on politics or religion if you value your privacy and the public’s respect. Your job is to be unbiased and nonjudgmental.”
In my public relations business, I’ve maintained that position. I don’t endorse candidates (although I do support issues that support human rights and equality and issues that directly impact the quality of my life in my marketplace.
Here are a couple of examples of what happened to small business people who spoke out (their identities have been changed to protect them and their businesses).
In 2004, after the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that same-sex marriages were constitutional, a public initiative, Vote on Marriage, began to push for an amendment to the constitution that marriage was between a man and a woman and collected petition signatures to place the bill before legislators. Many Baystaters signed the petition, assuming that their signature for or against marriage equality was a private matter, but an organization, Know Thy Neighbor, legally got the names of those who had signed the petitions, and released them publicly.
Example #1: In one town, only a handful of people signed the anti-marriage equality petition, including a vendor with a popular, well-known business. When the vendor’s name appeared, many pro marriage equality people and their allies began to shop elsewhere, and business declined. The vendor couldn’t understand why the business had dropped dramatically until reading his name in an article on a website. He didn’t realize that his signature could be made public, and he also admitted that he wasn’t sure what he’d “supported” when a neighbor thrust a clipboard at him and asked him to support “something important.” Note: It took the vendor over a year to clear his name by carefully supporting local pro-equality programs to prove his lack of bigotry.
Example #2. A local businessman served on the board of a local non-profit and became its executive director. He was a top-notch networker, and within a couple of months, had “friended” lots of business and media contacts on social media. But, when the holidays approached, he jumped on the bandwagon with a batch of posts about the “War on Christmas.” He alienated many of the business’ non-Christian customers and patrons, along with many Christians, who felt that “Happy Holidays” was inclusive. Many people assumed he was speaking on behalf of the business.
So, remembering that people will assume that your personal views also are your business views…be careful how you express your views on politics and religion, because they always cause heated response. And, you don’t want to offend your current or potential customers or provide fodder for your competitors.
When it comes to religion, it’s always okay to support equality of all religions. It’s always okay to wish people a “Merry Christmas,” a “Happy New Year,” or a “Happy Chanukah.” It’s better to be inclusive and wish people a happy holiday season.
When it comes to politics, it’s best to keep your political candidate choices private. Keep the political signs off the business property, too.
It ‘s okay to support a politician’s efforts to support a program and/or service that builds a better community for your business and employees. Example: a local legislator is working to restore passenger rail service from our community to Boston. That’s good for my business, my employees, and my customers. Second example: Another legislator is working to make sure the state maintains tax credits for filmmakers who make their movies in Massachusetts. That’s good for my clients. Both of these idea have received my public endorsement, which is appreciated by my clients.
It’s okay to lobby for an issue that directly impacts your business or your customers, i.e. speaking out FOR better street lighting in your store location, or AGAINST a building project that will close off streets or eliminate parking at your place of business.
As Jorge Ramos, Univision anchor, told NPR’s Morning Edition, “I’m just a journalist who asks questions. The difference is that I’m completely convinced that there are a few moments, important moments, in which you have to take a stand as a journalist when it comes to racism, discrimination, corruption, public lies, dictatorships, and human rights, you have to take a stand as a reporter because I think our responsibility as journalists is to confront those who are abusing power.“
So it goes with business.
However you choose to express your point of view, remember, as the owner of a small business, your personal views will reflect your business point of view, and your clients, customers, potential customers and competitors are watching what you say and support.
Mark G. Auerbach is principal at Mark G. Auerbach Public Relations, a Springfield, MA, based marketing, public relations, development and events consultancy. You can find more information about Mark at Facebook and LinkedIn.