Over social media, businesses and their owners and executives can connect directly with customers as frequently as they like. However, this direct communication has to be used with caution, particularly when wading into areas that have little to do with the business at hand. This is particularly an issue when it comes to politics.
Over the past couple of weeks, a number of business entities jumped into the national debate over a proposed religious freedom law in the state of Indiana. Big business leaders like Tim Cook of Apple and Marc Benioff of Salesforce.com were very vocal about what Indiana was proposing and small businesses, including Indiana-based Memories Pizza, were also caught in the fray, with varying degrees of consequences.
As a business owner, be thoughtful about voicing your political thoughts and opinions. Here are a few things to consider.
People don’t separate individuals from businesses.
Call it guilt by association or perhaps blame it on the narrowing of people’s minds, but especially for a small-business owner, you are your business in the eyes of the masses. If you express a thought in a public forum (or a private forum that happens to get out to the public), it can damage your business. Even your employees can be considered ambassadors for your business in the court of public opinion, so have a clear social-media policy in place.
It can affect your employees.
You may have a strong belief that differs from that of your employees or prospective employees. This may affect your ability to hire and retain the best people, who may see your belief as a personal attack -- even when it isn’t.
You may end up looking like a hypocrite.
On CNBC, I mentioned that several business owners looked hypocritical for threatening to stop doing business with Indiana because they felt the proposed law discriminated against the LGBT community, when these same companies freely did business with countries abroad where they routinely killed people who were LGBT for being so and also had a lousy track record in terms of the treatment of women. Unless these businesses were also going to stop selling products and services in the offending countries -- which they did not seem prepared to do -- the boycott seemed blatantly hypocritical.
Your strong thoughts in context may make sense, but you may forget a different application of them which makes you look uninformed, or worse, puts pressure on your business to make a bigger stand than you were prepared to do.
The Internet footprint is basically forever.
The owners of Memories Pizza spoke out in favor of the proposed Indiana religious freedom bill and said they would hypothetically not cater a LGBT wedding (assuming there was one that wanted pizza at the wedding…) because it conflicted with their religious beliefs. Those who were opposed to that stance took to the Internet with reckless abandon, posting 1-star reviews on Yelp as well as other negative and nasty comments all over the web. The pizza place and the owners both received threats of violence.
While the violent threats will likely blow over and perhaps some of the Yelp reviews can be removed, there will be a long history online that could affect the small establishment for years to come.
You may turn off customers.
Taking a stand in relation to divisive issues may cost you customers. If your beliefs are strong enough, you may not care, but it is a real risk that you should consider.
That being said, you also may build a strong niche following or find a new community of supporters. In the case of Memories Pizza, in addition to the bad outcomes, a crowdfunding campaign was started to support the business that netted them close to $850,000 from a bevy of supporters.
Your message may be misinterpreted.
Given the reading comprehension skills of the average Internet user, it is very likely that what you say will be misinterpreted, misunderstood and somehow framed in a way that you hadn’t intended. Proceed with caution.
I am a big supporter of the concept of free speech -- and of people being allowed to say and do things that I blatantly disagree with -- but the masses aren’t often on board with that philosophy. So, even when you have a strong feeling about politics, weigh the risks and rewards of sharing those feelings carefully before you do so.