Entrepreneurs Shouldn't Discuss Political Issues, Right? Not So Fast, Experts Say.

In the wake of instances of tragedy and political controversy, how do you approach articulating your company's stance on big issues?

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By Nina Zipkin

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For a long time, the conventional entrepreneurial wisdom was that you shouldn't do anything that could potentially alienate part of your customer base, like, say, speaking your mind on political issues. But despite the fraught nature of conversations around issues such as gun control, many companies are no longer keeping their stances to themselves.

In the wake of fatal gun violence that killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 14, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, Enterprise and Hertz all announced that they will end discount programs for members of the NRA. Cybersecurity firm Symantec, insurance firm MetLife and First National Bank of Omaha said it would be doing the same.

Retailers including Dick's Sporting Goods announced that in addition to raising the age of purchase to 21, it would also no longer be selling assault-style firearms. Walmart also raised the age of purchase to 21 and said it would be removing any items in the stores that resembled an assault rifle, including toys. L.L. Bean and grocery store chain Kroger also said that they would be raising the age to purchase firearms to 21.

FedEx has said that it will continue to offer a discount program for NRA members. And while the NRA uses competitor UPS to ship items from its online store, UPS does not have a discount program.

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

Increasingly, it seems that great customer service, a vibrant company culture or an innovative online presence is no longer enough to truly make an impact with customers. A recent survey by social media management firm Sprout Social found that 66 percent of those polled said it was important for brands to take a public stance about social and political concerns. According to a study conducted by Weber Shandwick, 47 percent of millennials said they believe CEOs have a responsibility to be vocal about important societal issues.

Last week, more than a million students across the country staged walkouts to raise awareness and call for an end to gun violence. On March 24, according to the March for Our Lives website, there will be more than 800 protests taking place around the world. Thanks to the work of young activists and their supporters, this conversation has been amplified and shows no signs of being cast aside anytime soon. But this will certainly not be the first or the last time the business community will be asked, or feel compelled, to speak out on concerns of national importance.

While it may seem like making yourself heard on an issue might be courting controversy -- and it could put off people on either or even both sides of an issue -- Megan Kashner, a professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, says that business leaders are actually in a position to open the lines of communication around an issue rather than fan the flames further.

Related: Business Leaders Slam Trump's Decision to Withdraw From Paris Climate Agreement

"Sometimes taking a position can seem scary or risky, not because people disagree with you, but because somehow the public discourse has been skewed," Kashner says. "When the public discourse has been skewed, then entrepreneurs, innovators and business leaders actually have the opportunity to step in and normalize it, and bring things back down from a fever pitch to a conversation."

One thing is for sure: if your response isn't coming from a genuine place, you've already lost, says Melissa Gonzalez, CEO of retail strategy firm The Lion'esque Group.

"People pick up on that right away. People on social media are unforgiving and then it takes two seconds for them to comment on that and call B.S. on you and then that becomes the conversation," she says. "Do it for the things you believe in and stand for and then be genuine about it or don't do it at all."

As much as you might want to respond quickly, Gonzalez cautions that speed is not always the best course of action when you are speaking out. Even if a statement is deleted, someone could very well screenshot and circulate an ill-thought out response.

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

Take as much time as you need sussing out how you're going to communicate what you stand for, Gonzalez explains. "What your voice is as the brand shouldn't be compromised," she says. "The stance you want to take in the message still should go through that same filter, even if it's something that may seem a little bit more controversial."

According to a survey taken by market research firm YouGov about the 17 brands that did cut ties with the NRA: "Consumers who affiliated as Democrats felt more positive about the brands, Republicans didn't change their perception, and independents actually steered negative. While the Democrats are going as expected, it seems Republicans are divided on their brand support in light of their parting with the NRA." The study found that the brands that did speak out did see a boost in word-of-mouth recognition, but it also identified that when it came to overall customer perception, the needle didn't move in a significant fashion, which YouGov said could reflect that "consumers are applying equal positive and negative pressure, depending on their politics and position on gun control."

That assessment is in line with a Sprout Social study, which noted that when customers' personal beliefs align with what the companies are saying, 28 percent will publicly praise it. If they disagree, only 20 percent said they would publicly criticize the brand. The survey also found that social media is where customers are most open to brands sharing their positions on issues, particularly, if they express themselves via a call to action, making donations or providing resources for customers to get involved.

Related: Trump Travel Ban, Even While Blocked, Casts Long Shadow Over Immigrant Entrepreneurs

In the aftermath of the Parkland shooting, on March 9, Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act into law. The bill raises the minimum age to buy a firearm from 18 to 21, institutes a three-day waiting period for most firearm purchases and bans the sale of bump stocks. There is also a controversial $67 million provision in the bill that could allow some teachers to be armed if school districts and local law enforcement departments come to an agreement. The bill also allocates $69 million for mental health aid in schools and $98 million to increase the security of school buildings. Whether other states will adopt similar laws, or if a similar bill were to reach the federal level, remains to be seen.

So whether you opt to use your platform to take a stand or not, Kashner says there is always a chance that you could lose some of your customer base. But if you are going to lose some ground, you're better off doing it because you took action in a way that was aligned with your value system.

"If you know who you are and you know what you believe in and you stand up behind who you are and what you believe, then the market will respect you for that," Kashner says. "Studies have shown that purpose-driven enterprises do a better job of attracting and retaining top talent. They have higher productivity and they have higher reputational ratings in the marketplace. Not all of these purpose-driven companies have the same values. But they have values and that's the difference."

Nina Zipkin

Entrepreneur Staff

Staff Writer. Covers leadership, media, technology and culture.

Nina Zipkin is a staff writer at Entrepreneur.com. She frequently covers leadership, media, tech, startups, culture and workplace trends.

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