With the Republican primaries upon us — and the 2012 general election on the horizon — Americans are becoming increasingly vocal about their political views. As a small-business owner, should you start posting signs in support of your favorite candidate(s) for public office?
In most cases, absolutely not.
“There’s too much risk when small businesses align with a political group, organization, or [candidate],” says Cynthia Nevels, a public relations consultant. “It is our policy to recommend to clients not to publicize their political views, but to focus on their charitable work or to give to organizations that may align with their views.”
Keep in mind, however, that giving to organizations which support your views can be controversial, too — particularly if the charity you support has values that clash with those of your customers.
Cases in Point
In 2004, Curves gym franchise founder Gary Heavin was outed as a major contributor to anti-abortion charities, such as Care Net. Although the charitable contributions came from Heavin’s personal funds, rather than from the company, the backlash from the gym’s almost-entirely female customer base was huge.
More recently, the Susan G. Komen Foundation took major heat from supporters for threatening to stop funding Planned Parenthood, which provides abortion services as well as breast-cancer screenings and many other women’s health services. Though the organization ultimately agreed to continue funding the women’s health group, the controversy led Komen’s vilified vice-president Karen Handel to resign.
Similarly, Target’s image was tarnished in 2010 after the company made a campaign contribution to a political group that promoted a gubernatorial candidate who opposed same-sex marriage. More than 240,000 consumers signed a boycott petition in response to the company’s donation.
On the other end of the political spectrum, the conservative Christian group One Million Moms launched a Facebook crusade against J.C. Penney for hiring openly gay TV host Ellen DeGeneres as its new spokesperson. The company ultimately stood by its decision.
Exception to the Rule
If your chosen political causes go hand-in-hand with the branding message you’re promoting, taking a stand may actually help your business.
“I submit that the reason Ben & Jerry’s is one of the two top brands in the super-premium ice cream category is precisely because of its very public stance for social good,” says marketing consultant Shel Horowitz. In fact, co-founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, along with CEO Jostein Solheim, took a public stand last month in support of the Occupy Wall Street movement. (The business’s parent company, mega-corporation Unilever, may not look as favorably on the movement, however.)
The Bottom Line
Before making any move with even the most cursory of political connections, think carefully about how your customers and prospects are likely to view your contributions or statements of support. If you worry that your polarizing views could lead to ill will or a boycott of your company, save your opinions for the ballot box.