Sunday, June 28, 2015

On Politics and Business

This week marked a change that probably will go down in American history as a victory equivalent to a woman’s right to vote or the abolition of slavery. By that I mean, in another half a century, the event will be yet one more member of vague common knowledge, and what rights today have been granted to one sect of American citizens in a controversial, heated battle will be something generations of students to come will learn in school was always the Right Thing—people were just to conservative and "old-fashioned" to see it.

In this moment, however, views are split decisively down the middle. If that is not evidenced by the 5-to-4 vote in Supreme Court on Friday, then certainly it is evidenced in the reactions that have ensued both in face-to-face discourse and on just about every social platform available.

I mention this as a person who, being a small business blogger, follows a number of businesses on Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram. After hearing the announcement from a woman at work who has reason to be invested in the movement, I fully expected to see statuses on my Facebook feed from my friends of different political persuasions and, naturally, sexual orientations. What I did not expect was how many businesses “came out” with celebratory reactions:

These are just a sample of the untold thousands of businesses that found their own ways to participate in the cause. What an unusual phenomenon. Historically, this might in itself be a milestone. I do not think I’ve worked for anyone who owned more than one business or location who did not in my contract forbid me from speaking on social platforms about my place of work, lest my place of work become tainted by whatever politics I upheld. Further, my natural grasp of diplomacy has won me fast privileges at every job I’ve had (save one), and at one company even awarded me the coveted spot of public relations representative. Businesses like to keep their noses out of controversy, because controversy means the potential to alienate a portion of their target customers.

So why for this occasion are businesses more than happy to proclaim a stance on such a deeply rooted, sensitive subject? And is it good that they want to, or bad?

If we’re measuring by the dollars that will be gained or lost over each company’s statement, then my guess is it’s a wash. There will be a large band of customers at each of these businesses who become more loyal because of the support they feel they have, and there will be people who cease to be customers because they feel that in some way by supporting these businesses they give money to the enemy. The latter group will be smaller, but more vocal.

If we’re measuring by the division that births from such bold statements, I think the issue becomes a bigger problem. Difficult enough is it to interact one-on-one with friends or family members of different world views than oneself—add businesses to the mix and the tension increases exponentially. Imagine walking into a business and assuming that every person who works there is of the same or opposite political views as you. You might feel welcomed falsely or outnumbered prematurely. This is not only a customer service issue, it’s a corporate issue. What businesses forbid their employees to do—taint their workplace reputation with politics—businesses have now done to their employees. 

If what I’m saying sounds strange, take a look at some of these tidbits from others in the social stratosphere. I took the time to read some of the responses to the posts I shared above. One former TOMS associate said: “When I worked at TOMS and wanted to post a rainbow of shoes for every state that legalized gay marriage, I was told the issue was too controversial and they had to stay out of it. I guess it’s okay now.

An Instagram follower of A Beautiful Mess said this: “As a follower and consumer of AMB I would prefer not to know your political views on any topic or Supreme Court decision. Thank you.

In the first case, the commenter was presumably of the same political viewpoint as the proclamation—she just didn’t understand why it was suddenly okay for a business entity to participate in political conversation. In the latter case, the commenter was presumably of the opposite political persuasion of the proclamation—and she didn’t want to have her customer experience changed because of political differences from the business. In both instances the reactions demonstrate division. In neither case did the business care to respond via comment; although by all appearances TOMS had the backhand comment removed from their feed.

Here are some more:

I like pinterest. I hope I will like all the gay comments, sayings, jokes, posters, etc.

If Pinterest had come out with a rainbow with a big X on it, then what would you think? Many people would be totally offended. Individual people have every right to support whatever side they want, but companies, businesses, etc. should not.

(As with the other platforms, Pinterest received the whole range of responses for posting an image of their team in rainbow gear and “Proud” shirts. This was a particularly bold decision for a company that only sells other companies’ merchandise and ideas. The scads of people dumping Pinterest to make a statement are consumers of the businesses that buy “paid pins” on the Pinterest feed. Will those businesses see a decline in Pinterest-driven sales? Will they make the business decision to stop buying ad space? We shall see the consequences of Pinterest’s decision perhaps more than the others in the long haul…)

As for the “why” question… Social strategy is likely the conspirator behind this unlikely approach to business strategy. Not only has the internet opened a global market for businesses—it also has encouraged transparency, competition, and scandal. As a consequence, we as Americans especially have migrated to a more liberal way of thinking. “Neutrality is a byproduct of an old way of thinking,” we corporately seem to believe. “We must pick a side to count.” I think it all came to a head in this debate. How cunning of these businesses to cast their bets on the winning side… after the fact. 

Not to mention that the social managers of most companies are techies in their twenties and thirties—the ones who used MySpace fifteen years ago to post personal feelings with no ingrained sense of censorship. Whether or not some of these companies gave the OK to represent on this issue, social reps these days know that they can fall back on the discrimination laws posted in all employee bathrooms: “[Company Name] shall not discriminate based on race, sex, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, physical disability, age…” By not allowing the advocacy of this political issue, companies risk being in violation of very basic discrimination laws.

Maybe I am old-fashioned, but I think it’s better to keep business just business, and save politics and religion for family reunions. If a particular company offers the best version of a product, any consumer ought to be able to opt for that product without feeling pressured or ostracized. Picking a side in business pits “us” against “them,” and sometimes “them” is the good-hearted customer who is just trying to live out what he or she believes the best she can, same as the people running the show. Why would making a paying customer feel left out or dis-included be a good business decision?

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