How to Mix Business and Politics Without Ruining Your Business

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Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos have stood their ground on deeply felt political issues. The potential for alienating large portions of their customer base always existed. But what kept them from shying away from the risk?

Related: The Business of Politics

Cathy’s stance against same-sex marriage resulted in boycotts and even “kiss-ins” across the country. In the other corner, Bezos pledged $2.5 million to defend Washington’s gay-marriage law, his biggest political entry yet.

The donation, which Bezos made with his wife, MacKenzie, is likely the largest political contribution to a gay-marriage campaign in the country. It dwarfs all of Bezos’ previous political giving. It also positions Amazon as a sort of corporate counterpoint to Chick-fil-A.

Related: Leave it in D.C.: 5 Ways to Rise Above Politics at Work

Getting involved in politics can be complicated for entrepreneurs who wonder whether it’s even OK to show public support for issues, political parties or candidates with whom they strongly connect. But as a business owner, you can do a lot of good when you support worthy causes.

However, there’s always a potential for backlash to your company or personal brand. Rather than diving headfirst into this complicated world, you must approach it with a critical eye and a fine-tuned ear.

Politics that unite, not divide

You have the influence and resources to form a movement around an issue and bring about large-scale change. This can even have positive effects on your businesses -- if your customers agree with you. If you genuinely believe in the issue or candidate and have the power to effect change, you could argue that getting involved is the right thing to do.

On the other hand, committing to a hot-button issue or a political party that alienates your customer base might end up hurting you or your brand in the long run. Navigating these issues is complicated, so here are five tips to ensure you won’t regret getting involved:

  1. Focus on the issues. Put your money and influence behind issues, not political parties. Publicly supporting a party is risky since there’s always a mixed bag of issues in any campaign. Staying out of the inner workings of political parties will minimize damage to your brand. Pick your issues one at a time based on what’s important to you and your business.
  2. Keep it local. Be sure the issues you support hit close to home for your customers and business. If your stance on an issue is in line with your company’s values, they’re likely to support you. For example, a cookie company might support childhood obesity initiatives to show concern for its customers’ best interests.
  3. Be informed. Even if you think you know a lot about something, it’s critical you become an expert before publicly supporting an idea or candidate. Being well educated about the issues is the best way to protect yourself and your business from risk.
  4. Bring people together. Even though our country is divided and Congress consistently receives low approval ratings, most people support issues that make sense for the majority of the population. Choosing policies that unite people instead of polarizing issues that tear them apart makes good business sense. It also minimizes potential damage to you and your company.
  5. Know your customers. How controversial an idea is ultimately comes down to what your customers think. If your customer base is conservative, for example, supporting liberal causes could cost you big time. Know who your customers are before making a public political statement or donation. Market research can uncover great insights, but posting articles about polarizing ideas to your company’s social media accounts and observing how followers respond is a simple, inexpensive way to take your customer base’s temperature.

Even if have strong political convictions, you can do your homework and use your influence to unite rather than divide. The key is thinking clearly and wisely when (and if) you do choose to enter the political realm.

Related: Will Customers Know Your Pick for President?