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When business and politics mix – and when they don’t

It wasn't so long ago that proper business etiquette dictated that one avoid discussing politics at all costs. Sure, you might have strong views on abortion or the Middle East, but if you wanted to rise up the corporate ranks or appeal to new and existing customers, the best tactic available was to simply smile and keep your mouth shut.

However, avoiding politics has become much more challenging lately and some brands or executives believe being vocal is worth the risk. They include the more than 120 U.S. tech companies that filed a legal brief condemning U.S. President Donald Trump's immigration order, or AirBnB's overtly political advertisement during the Super Bowl.

Done correctly, taking a political stance reaps financial benefits. Late last year, Vanity Fair snubbed one of Mr. Trump's restaurants, prompting the then-president-elect to tweet a disparaging remark about the magazine, causing a backlash that saw the magazine win a record number of subscriptions in a single day.

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Still, mixing business and politics doesn't always work. Uber's chief executive officer Travis Kalanick was forced to quit the President's business advisory group this month after coming under pressure from critics, including his drivers. Closer to home, Hudson's Bay Co. has come under fire for continuing to carry Ivanka Trump's products.

So how does one navigate this minefield of business and politics? Take a stand only when the topic is related to your customers' and stakeholders' core values, according to Kate Headley, principal consultant at MsCommuniKate Public Relations in Ottawa.

She cites the National Basketball Association's decision to move its 2017 all-star game from North Carolina to New Orleans in protest of the state's anti-LGBT law and PayPal's move to cancel expansion plans in the state as examples where companies used their financial sway appropriately. The risk to the NBA and PayPal was low since other states would gladly welcome them and the boost to the economy that their business would bring, Ms. Headley said.

"When assessing whether or not to take a stance, a company first needs to consider how it will affect their primary stakeholders, customers, investors and staff," she said. The airline industry isn't going to take a stance on the executive order about using American-made steel for pipelines, Ms. Headley said.

Even in cases where the stand feels appropriate, brands need to understand that they will never win everyone over.

"There's no such thing as a political issue where 100 per cent of people agree with each other," Ms. Headley cautioned.

As well, companies need to tread carefully when they wade into politics, since they are dealing with a public that's increasingly skeptical about their motives.

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"Before making a public political statement, a company needs to have an honest internal conversation about what statement they're making, the real reasons behind it and what they hope to achieve," Ms. Headley said.

In the case of Google Inc., one of the tech companies that filed the legal brief, it has employees affected by the immigration orders, and since it impacts their productivity, the company's bottom line and the well-being of its staff, the company must take a stand, she argued. When it comes to the Bay carrying Ivanka Trump's brand, the stakes may not be high enough to warrant a comment.

However, Audrey Wubbenhorst, a professor of public relations at Humber College in Toronto, said companies such as the Bay should respond to the feedback they are receiving after evaluating the business case for any stand they may take on the issue.

"They [companies such as the Bay] need to consider if a particular issue contravenes their corporate values. There may not be an immediate business impact, or there may even be a dip in their business results, but in the long-term it may be the right decision," said Ms. Wubbenhorst.

Still, if you or your company is not compelled to speak out on big political topic, the best advice remains to stay mum on hot-button issues.

"There is an old etiquette saying to never discuss politics, sex, religion or money at a dinner party – so in that vein, I wouldn't normally advise a client to make a public political statement. I would advise a client to be the same way they have always been – respectful, honest and welcoming to all customers," said Debra Goldblatt-Sadowski, president and founder of Rock-It Promotions, Inc. in Toronto.

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"I've seen some brands try to make light of political situations of late and it's gone terribly wrong. Social-media mishaps are a prime example where this happens in today's culture. … The speed of social media is dizzying," Ms. Goldblatt warned .

"Don't try to be funny. Keep the satire to the comedians at Saturday Night Live," she added.

Leah Eichler (@LeahEichler) writes about workplace trends.

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About the Author
Future of Work

Leah Eichler (@LeahEichler) is founder and CEO of r/ally, a mobile collaboration platform for enterprises. More

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