In the age of the Internet and increasing globalization, many companies are finding that word-of-mouth and consumer feedback are critical to their businesses. Further, economic citizenship, the idea that the way a person spends his or her money has political relevance, holds more weight as consumers can easily learn a great deal about the business practices and political leanings of the companies from which they make purchases. As seen with some recent boycotts, mixing politics and business can have unintended consequences.
Politics & Partners
Earlier this year, JC Penny unintentionally became involved in a political uproar because of its partnership with Ellen DeGeneres. As spokeswoman, DeGeneres appeared in a number of TV ads for the company. In March, One Million Moms, a division of the American Family Association, orchestrated a boycott of the company unless JC Penny replaced DeGeneres, citing the comedienne’s sexuality and stance on marriage rights as a threat to traditional values. Neither JC Penny nor DeGeneres viewed their partnership as an endorsement of same-sex marriage by the company. Ultimately, One Million Moms called off the boycott. JC Penny’s case demonstrates how business decisions or partnerships that are not intended as political statements can be misconstrued or exploited for others’ agendas. JC Penny stood behind its decision, further showing that in the midst of a controversy, a company can still protect its integrity by refusing to engage with backlash. Each case is different, however, so should your company face a backlash of this type, considering your company’s values and the bottom-line of your public image should be top priority.
Taking a Stand
Other companies intentionally choose to take a stand. The clearest recent example, the kerfuffle over Chick-Fil-A, shows how the mixture of politics and business can lead to good and bad publicity. When Chick-Fil-A’s President Dan Cathy discussed his stance against same-sex marriage in an interview, a heated controversy followed, featuring a boycott of the company as well as a Chick-Fil-A support day. The debate centered upon the fried chicken company’s financial contributions to controversial organizations, First Amendment rights, and whether a chicken sandwich should be such a loaded symbol in the first place.
Currently, Hobby Lobby, another Christian company, faces challenges due to a lawsuit the craft store has filed, countering new mandates under President Obama’s health care program. Though Hobby Lobby and Chick-Fil-A have each garnered enormous amounts of press coverage—good and bad—from taking a stand, their struggles clearly demonstrate that before a company takes an explicit political stance or donates funds to political or religious organizations, it’s important to decide how important personal views are to the company and whether or not the risk to the bottom-line is worth it.
Avoiding Controversy: Left, Right, or Center?
For many companies, however, avoiding controversy altogether is the goal. In the especially politically charged climate of a contentious election year, one has to wonder if politics mix with business at all. Is there any reason for a company to have an overt political agenda or for the politics of the CEO to play a central role in the company’s image?
Know which issues are most sensitive to consumers: animal rights, labor conditions, equality, the economy, and so on. Keep these issues in mind when you think about your company’s public relations or policies. The first step to avoiding an unwanted scandal is to keep abreast of the political climate of the time and think critically about your company’s core values. If there’s no logical reason for politics and your company to mix, perhaps it’s best to stick to what your company is really all about, whether it’s product quality or customer service.