Free Speech Has a Cost When You Share Controversial Views Online Be true to your views but choose your words carefully. What you say online can never be erased.

By Steve Tobak

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Barn Images

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.

Related: 5 Ways to Stop Embarrassing Yourself on LinkedIn

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.

Related: 8 Types of Photos You Should Never Use on Your LinkedIn Profile

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.

Related: Want to Avoid Embarrassing Social Media Mistakes? Don't Miss Our Live Hangout.

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.

Wavy Line
Steve Tobak

Author of Real Leaders Don't Follow

Steve Tobak is a management consultant, columnist, former senior executive, and author of Real Leaders Don’t Follow: Being Extraordinary in the Age of the Entrepreneur (Entrepreneur Press, October 2015). Tobak runs Silicon Valley-based Invisor Consulting and blogs at, where you can contact him and learn more.

Editor's Pick

She's Been Coding Since Age 7 and Presented Her Life-Saving App to Tim Cook Last Year. Now 17, She's on Track to Solve Even Bigger Problems.
I Helped Grow 4 Unicorns Over 10 Years That Generated $18 Billion in Online Revenues. Here's What I've Learned.
Want to Break Bad Habits and Supercharge Your Business? Use This Technique.
Don't Have Any Clients But Need Customer Testimonials? Follow These 3 Tricks To Boost Your Rep.
Why Are Some Wines More Expensive Than Others? A Top Winemaker Gives a Full-Bodied Explanation.

Related Topics

Business News

'I'm Not a Very Good Businessman': Kevin Costner Is Risking a Ton of His Own Money on New Project

The "Yellowstone" star discussed how he bankrolled his new epic movies — and his accountant isn't happy.

Science & Technology

How AI Is Transforming the Accounting Industry — and What the Future Will Look Like

It's time to harness the power of AI and transform bookkeeping.

Business News

Woman Goes Viral For Brow-Raising Email Signature About Working Moms: 'Everyone Is Feeling This'

The email signature was created in response to pressure to answer emails within 24 hours.


The Rise of Nano-Influencers: How the Smallest Voices are Making the Biggest Impact

The bigger an influencer is, the more beneficial it is for a brand to collaborate with them, right? Not necessarily.


Which Hiring Strategy Is Right for Your Startup? My Experience Says This One

Startup businesses face a unique environment when it comes to adding the talent it needs during their earliest stages of operations, and every hiring decision is critically important to get right the first time.