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Should Small Businesses Speak Out on Controversial Topics?

Speak your mind, but don't be surprised when people want to give you a piece of theirs.
Should Small Businesses Speak Out on Controversial Topics?
Image credit: Geber86 | Getty Images

How do you feel about immigration? How about same-sex marriage, the cost of higher education, climate change or the Affordable Care Act? These controversial issues weigh heavily on the hearts and minds of Americans -- but it’s not just individuals engaging in the public debate. Increasingly, companies of all sizes (led largely by their CEOs) are taking a stand, speaking out in support or opposition to some of the greatest social-political issues of our times. But just how risky is it to your brand reputation?

Related: Why Business Leaders Are No Longer Afraid to Get Political

Historically, businesses are scrupulously neutral on social issues. If and when they exercise their voice, it was over bread-and-butter economic issues, like trade and taxes, not those with such significant social implications. It seemed little would be gained -- and more would be lost, with potential hits to reputation and market share -- by activism on divisive matters. But we’re living and working in different times.

Take Apple. Last year, it made a huge move that had nothing to do with technology when it came out against an anti-LGBT bill. Then there’s Starbucks, which more recently pledged to hire 10,000 refugees in response to President Trump’s executive order banning citizens from a host of Middle Eastern countries. Yes, these are mighty brands, not vulnerable startups, but the takeaway is still the same. Companies, big and small, increasingly recognize their customers care not only about what they sell, but also about what they stand for.

This intersection of business and politics can be a thorny place, but speaking out on a meaningful issue close to your mission may be well worth the risk, paying off by connecting you more deeply to your customers and strengthening your reputation in the communities you serve. Here’s what to consider if you’re thinking of taking a stand on a hot-button issue:

Stick to your core values. 

Stand by your message, and articulate what’s most important to you and your business. For example, if you are a thought leader known for your ideas on leadership, it may be relevant for you to share your perspective on whether a business leader can translate corporate experience to a political office. But if you’re a coding expert, your audience may not understand or appreciate why you suddenly start tweeting about gun rights.

Related: What to Consider Before Your Brand Takes a Stand Politically

Consider your goal. 

What’s compelling you to speak out? Is new legislation impacting your employees, and they need you to be a voice for them? Does it impact their ability to work for your organization? Does the topic resonate with your customers and relate to why they work with you? Is it connected to your organization’s mission? Those are all good reasons to take a stance. Here’s an important question: Is this a fight worth having? Are you adding value to the debate or just letting off steam? You don’t have to be a Fortune 500 corporation to influence policy makers who could potentially impact your small business. 

Avoid negativity. 

I’ve long been the black sheep in my family when it comes to politics, going against the grain and what my parents and siblings believe. It’s not easy, but we’ve learned to share our beliefs with respect. Businesses and thought leaders who adopt this mindset find that sharing opinions with good intentions, to add perspective or to offer an authentic and personal response to something going on in the world receive the most benefit.

Related: How to Include Politics in Your Marketing Without Turning Anyone Off

Acknowledge the risk. 

Think twice before you take a moral stance if it’s purely sales-driven, especially as a small business. Companies seen as looking to capitalize on political trends can suffer. Speaking out on controversial issues will get you more attention, but be prepared for the scrutiny that comes with the spotlight.  Make sure you follow through; back it up and walk the talk. 

It’s a brave new world, largely shaped and influenced by generational values. As consumers and workers, millennials in particular are highly attuned to a company’s social value proposition. According to research by the Global Strategy Group, when corporate stances are consistent with an individual’s own beliefs, those in the 18-25 and 26-35 age groups are 20+ percent more likely to shop with those companies. Even small businesses that align their strategies to their socially-driven missions see a better bottom line. Employees want to engage, customers want to make purchases, and people want to help you reach your goal.

When small businesses speak up on issues important to them, they attract like-minded vendors, supply chain partners, employees and customers. Yes, it comes with risk. But it can be worth it.