Protecting your business from polarizing politics

Many of us hoped that politics would fade as a top driver of consumer sentiment as soon as Election Day came and went. Now, preventing being dragged into a political firestorm needs to be as much a part of business emergency planning as fire safety and IT recovery, because there is no sign that public polarization is going to ebb anytime soon.

In the past week, a shoe company, a spice company and a coffee company were among the many businesses that were subjects of social media campaigns related to the election results.  Now is the time for others to take steps to prevent joining the list.

The most common ways companies get into political hot water are:

  • Deliberately, such as when an executive makes a political endorsement;
  • Accidentally, when customers perceive a company official or employee making a political statement;
  • Innocently, such as when members of the public mistakenly attribute a political act to a business or when an individual or group chooses to conduct a political act on a business property.

While the business aspects of each of these may differ, the communications strategies are similar. The most important ground rule is that every company needs to have a written policy about political activity. 

Prohibiting political activity at work generally fits within an employer’s rights, provided that the rule has a legitimate business justification, is fair and consistently enforced, and does not infringe on an employee’s rights outside of their job. In other words, you can prohibit employees from wearing political buttons while working, provided that you prohibit all campaign buttons. But you are in murky waters if you publish this rule after political activities begin or in direct response to a specific incident, because the rule has to be neutral, not partisan. (Check with your own attorney in case your state has specific limits.)

Executives need to be educated about those ground rules and how to handle questions from customers, the public, or the media about political issues. Comment about issues, not people. That is always safer than commenting on specific politicians. If you choose to comment as a business, try to do so in a way that keeps your doors open to those with different opinions.

In retail stores or any business that has doors open to the public, all employees need to be trained on how to react if a person enters and engages in political activity. Mindful that video recordings may be made at any time, employees need to know how to avoid saying or doing anything that could be construed as hostile or partisan. When an agitated customer berated a Starbucks barista in Florida after the election, the barista’s ability to remain calm under pressure limited any potential harm and helped end the incident faster. The viral video clearly showed that only the customer was behaving inappropriately.

Sometimes seemingly innocuous comments take on new meaning in a politically charged atmosphere, which is why companies need to be extra careful when commenting on any public policy issue. New Balance stepped into hot water when the shoe company’s vice president of public affairs said that Donald Trump’s election likely meant trade policies that would help the Massachusetts-based company. Even if the comment accurately reflected the company’s position, he made two mistakes: He referred to Trump by name and criticized the outgoing administration, also mentioning President Obama by name. Neither name amplified or clarified his key message, and by naming the two opponents, he made his words more overtly political than they needed to be. Had he simply said, “We are hopeful that the new administration will have a trade policy that will help us more than in the past,” few people would have noticed.

Instead, Trump opponents burned their New Balance shoes and called for a boycott, while a prominent white supremacist declared the shoes the “official brand of the Trump Revolution.” And the company has had to do a lot of damage control, including multiple social media posts and paid ads promoting the company’s diversity policy and disavowing hate or bigotry. The publicity attracted critics from both sides, including some who wanted to know why it took the endorsement of a neo-Nazi for New Balance to speak out against hate.

In Milwaukee, spice seller Penzey’s found itself in a similar firestorm after its owner proactively criticized the president-elect and the incidents of hate that have occurred since the election. The company’s social media accounts and phone lines were slammed with people calling for a boycott, and a competitor across town (and whose owner has a family connection to Penzey’s,) touted that it keeps politics out of its business. The long-term impact on the business remains to be seen. Just as one side ramped up calls for boycotts, the other side encouraged people around the country to buy from Penzey’s. Even if the customer service staff was prepared, these past few days likely were very stressful.

Here are a few things that every business can do to help navigate these uncharted waters and avoid similar situations:

  • Know your customers. Few businesses are in a position to alienate customers just because they voted for a candidate that the business owner opposed. Many found diplomatic ways to empathize with people disappointed with or happy about the election without turning any others away. One store in San Francisco invited customers inside for “retail therapy,” but aptly did not mention either candidate’s name. There was no need for a name to be included in order to draw customers.
  • Talk to your employees. Help your team understand that you and your business respect people’s opinions and their rights to express them, but also emphasize that the workplace is not an appropriate place for political activity. Think through how your business may be impacted by the changes in Washington and keep your staff informed, but avoid drama. Uncertainty is a source of anxiety for everyone. Do not add to it.
  • Have a plan. Just as you help your employees plan for and practice procedures for any other emergency, encourage or require them to practice handling customer concerns about a political issue. Help them get comfortable with neutral acknowledgments like, “Thank you for sharing your opinion.” Period. Resist the urge to say more. Most importantly, help them know how to de-escalate when a customer is agitated, including how to call for help when needed.

These simple steps, when put into practice and adhered to, can help you steer clear of problems like others have experienced, and they may help us all cope with whatever happens in the months ahead.