Free Speech Has a Cost When You Share Controversial Views Online

Free Speech Has a Cost When You Share Controversial Views Online
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Donald Trump, Hilary Clinton and the 2016 presidential election. Privacy and free speech rights issues. The threat of radical Islamic terrorism. Legislation on religious rights versus gay marriage. Racial discrimination, gender bias, income inequality … there’s certainly no shortage of controversial issues, these days.

In a world dominated by media hype, the 24x7 news cycle, the blogosphere, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter -- where everyone has an opinion and multiple platforms with which to express it -- how should startup founders and small business owners handle highly charged, third-rail topics?

Of course, you should feel free to exercise your first amendment right and openly express views you feel strongly about. On the other hand, it’s nearly impossible to separate your personal and business online presence, so you run the risk of losing customers who disagree with your positions. It’s a real dilemma.

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I bet I know what some of you are thinking. Life is too short to worry about what other people think. If they’re going to get all bent out of shape about it, who needs them?

While I appreciate the bravado, it is a bit cavalier when business is on the line and you’ve got a company to run, bills to pay and a family to feed. Even if you’re a solopreneur without a family, you still have a reputation to consider. Do you really want to risk it by wearing your opinions on your sleeve?

Then again, you might take the opposing view and say business is about business. Best to leave politics, religion, sexuality and other controversial issues at home. That’s fine and dandy, if you have the discipline to hold your tongue online, so to speak, but what about your employees? Does that somewhat Draconian view extend to them and their online presence? Or do you simply prohibit them from identifying with your firm?

Look, I know you people. You expect prescriptive advice here. But this is a nuanced and complex topic. It’s not that simple. There are no clear-cut, black-and-white answers. Only shades of gray.

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Perhaps this will help. When I became a management consultant and a columnist, it never occurred to me that my friends and family would read the stuff I write. Potential clients, as well. I simply never thought about it. And yes, I have lost customers over my admittedly strong viewpoints. Friends too.

In hindsight, if I had a chance to do it over, would I do anything differently? No, of course not. It’s part of my job. I’m paid to do it. And I enjoy it. But here’s the thing. I already had a long career in the tech industry before embarking on this path. I’ve already earned my stripes and made a name for myself. I can afford to throw some caution to the wind.

Besides, the kind of commentary I write is not as much about my opinion on controversial topics as it is advice for readers, given my expertise in leadership, business and technology. Things do get interesting when those topics intersect with culture and politics, but that comes with the territory. I’m comfortable with that.     

That said, even I take my online persona very seriously. Ever since I inadvertently clicked “reply all” on an email intended for one person 25 years ago, I religiously think things through and read everything twice before hitting “send” or “post.”

And when I say “everything,” I mean “everything.” I may not be able to take back the dumb stuff that comes out of my mouth, but I have absolute control over what I post, email and text, and I’m pretty darned disciplined about it. That’s a practice I highly recommend. I only wish there was an edit button for what I say, as well.

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I also follow the advice of Sam Clemens, aka Mark Twain, who wrote, “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.” I say what I mean and mean what I say. It’s all genuine. Transparent. Consistent. Logical. When I change my opinion, which happens on occasion, I’m pretty open about that too. What you see is what you get.

Lastly, I suppose it helps to know yourself. Be aware of your goals, your priorities, your feelings. Most of the mistakes we make when we communicate happen when we let things out that we’re either not aware of or haven’t thought through. But then, that comes with maturity, with experience.

You might say I wish I knew then what I know now, but the truth is, it wouldn’t have made a bit of difference. It’s OK to be young and dumb. After all, that’s what youth is for. Making mistakes. Learning lessons. Doing better next time.

Which brings us to my last piece of advice on the subject. Just remember one thing. The Internet is forever. It’s permanent. It’s cool to make mistakes. Just try not to make any mistakes you have to live with.