As new business owners, a few people have asked me if it’s a good idea to be political, or not. Should you take a hard stance on any given issue even if it’s unrelated to your products or services? Should you share your political affiliations with your customers? Here are some questions to help you decide.
Are YOU political?
If you’re extremely political, it’s only a natural fit that your business should also be political. Many businesses have succeeded with this approach.* Feminist gyms, politically-motivated bookstores, just to name a few examples.
If the politically-charged members of your community also convert to loyal patrons, then it might be a niche worth exploring. Where it can get really tricky is when you’re politically active, but your audience isn’t.
*Many politically-motivated businesses have also failed, either because the owner’s political views were not aligned with the status quo of their time, or because their audience was too small and couldn’t support the business.
Is your audience political?
It’s really easy to assume that your audience is political if you’re political. But, that might not be the case. Also, it can be easy to assume that your audience is political because you get some politically-motivated feedback. But, do the verbal few represent the majority of your customers? If you’re new in business, you should be doing research on your audience. How old are they, where do they live, what hobbies do they enjoy, are they students, are they higher class or lower class, are they adept with technology?
You should know as much as you can, and then research their politics. Send out polls, surveys, set up analytics. Learn more about who they are, and what they believe in so you can better serve their needs.
Pandering is obvious.
If you’re not political, but your audience is, then you have a huge dilemma on your hands: should you make political statements? Should you align your business with causes you don’t actually care about? Plenty of large corporations do it – should you?
The problem with this is that if you make any statement that you don’t believe in, then that will be transparent down the road, especially as a small business owner. On the flip side, if you don’t make any statements about politics, then you might lose some customers.
What I encourage business owners to do in this situation is to find the one or two topics that they (and their audience) genuinely care about, and to be vocal about that. For example, you and your audience might care a lot about sustainability. If you feel pressure to be political about other topics, simply explain that it’s not your wheelhouse. Most political audiences will understand when a small business owner choose to just focus on one or two causes that they mutually care about.
The online world isn’t a reflection of the ‘real’ world.
More importantly, the online world – the vocal minority – isn’t always a reflection of who’s paying your bills! I think a lot of businesses have lost sight of this, and have turned to pandering as an easy way to to get a few new customers, or to silence any criticism.
The problem with this approach is that they’re not considering who they’re losing in the process. The majority of people out there are experiencing political fatigue. They’re tired of seeing political posts, and will most likely be turned off if your business engages in politics, especially if your audience isn’t political. As a business owner, you HAVE to keep this in mind.
There’s no doubt that there is pressure to be politically active on social media, but it won’t serve your business well if you heed to this pressure without any legitimate reasons to do so.
How should I handle political comments?
If you’re a business owner with a social media page or group, and you’re getting an influx of political comments, criticism, or feedback, then you have a few choices on how to approach it. If the discussion is civil in between people, you can opt to just leave it alone. If it starts to get hairy, then I always advise business owners to shut it down. Lock the thread. Delete any offensive comments.
Don’t ever allow people to share private information about others, or to commit any acts that might be illegal (include hate speech) on your business page or in your group. That’s just common sense, but it also comes down to liability issues.
How should you handle any politically motivated criticism? Well, that depends. Are you claiming to be socially responsible? Do you have a corporate responsibility standard or statement that you’ve defied? First, evaluate if they have a point!
Secondly, depending on the feedback, you might also want to seek out advice from a lawyer or a PR specialist. If there are any accusations that might fall into legal territory, then shut up, and lawyer up.
But, for the most part (and I say this as an opinion, not as legal advice), you might also want to consider saying nothing at all. If your business is not political, and the criticism doesn’t point out any violations of your company’s ethics or moral codes, then your best approach might be to say nothing.
Some businesses prefer a well crafted answer, but keep in mind that a well crafted response from a business perspective might not temper the responses of politically motivated individuals. Also, remember that anything you say online can be saved forever. Weigh your options carefully.
What’s funny to you, might not be funny to them.
I don’t advise business owners to censor themselves if they’re not political, but I do caution the use of humour that could be perceived as political. If you’re claiming to be apolitical, but you make a crack about a political party, don’t be surprised if you get hate mail.
Also, if you choose to be political, and you share something that seems funny to you, don’t be surprised if it’s not funny to them. Even on the same political side, there are differences of opinion.
Again, before you post anything, consider how your audience – and people who aren’t in your target audience – might react to your joke. Some people might consider it a sad state of affairs that I recommend caution with humour, but it’s a statement that’s firmly planted in reality. Humour has always been a highly subjective thing.
Shape your business your way.
There are a lot of articles about how brands should be more political these days since there’s a perception that political activism plays favourably online. This might be true in some cases, but the actual data might be surprising.
In the end, a business’s role is to make money. It’s to provide you with a way to make a living, to feed your family, to permit you to travel and afford some luxuries. If your business is your sole source of income, then whatever decision you make should reflect the bottom line. If you can afford to be political, and that’s something your audience also cares about, then by all means, go for it!
I’m a big fan of encouraging small business owners to do more research, and to study the data, before making big decisions. I’m also a big fan of testing new ideas before deciding to go all in. And, I’m always reminding business owners to consider the numbers.
Lastly, I want to offer one more thing to think about: should you be running a non-profit instead? This is something worth considering as I’ve known a few business owners who were deeply passionate about politics, and who would have done so much better for themselves had they structured their organization as a non-profit instead of a for-profit enterprise. So, add that one to your list when you decide whether or not you should be political!