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Should Small Business Owners Take Political Stands?

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Given the increasingly volatile political climate and a contentious election approaching, some small-business owners may be moved to take public stands on political issues. But Baton Rouge public relations professional Christina Stephens encourages business owners to exercise caution before stepping into the political fray.

Stephens, who has extensive experience in corporate and government communications, says wading into the political arena could either be the best thing or the worst thing that ever happens to your business, so it’s imperative that you carefully consider the ramifications of taking any public political stance. “It’s such a tricky thing to navigate, especially as a small-business owner,” she says. “You have to really take a hard look at any stance you take.”

To avoid unintended negative consequences, consider these three factors before inserting your small business into the political fray.

Think Through the Long-Term Impact

Stephens says that taking a political stance can seem quite easy and convenient for small-business owners because they feel like they’re merely amplifying what they and their like-minded team believe.

But often that message — whether it’s support for a political candidate or a position on an issue — doesn’t play as well with customers, which could force you to retract that position if the backlash is strong enough.

Stephens suggests first considering closely whether your stance is good for your business over the long term, whether it will alienate potential customers and whether it’s something that aligns fully with the overall mission of your company. Only then should you decide whether it’s worth taking the stance. “Is it something that is going to hurt your future relationships?” she says. “Is it something that you care about so much that you don’t care if it hurts your future relationships?”

She says an example of a political stance that could make sense for a small business could be supporting a ballot initiative for infrastructure upgrades or school improvements — if you clearly explain why it matters to your business and the community. “As a small-business owner you may have an impact, and it may be something that’s popular with your customers,” she says. “But you have to think through the whole lifecycle of that process.”

Consider Other Ways to Reflect Your Values

When you’re moved by a controversial national or local event, it may feel good to fire off an angry social media post under your small-business identity, but this isn’t the only way to respond to hot-button issues. “Your business doesn’t necessarily need to have a position about every political issue,” Stephens says.

While data does show that younger consumers are drawn to companies that align with their personal values, Stephens says those values can be communicated in more subtle ways than overt political messages. You can demonstrate your company’s principles through the way you run your business and treat your employees, or by partnering with or financially supporting organizations that align with your values.

“Participating in community programs is a great way to support a cause you’re interested in without necessarily taking a big political stance,” she says.

If you feel compelled to take a strong political stance on an issue, consider expressing it as an individual rather than through your business. “That’s a key distinction you can make: You as a business owner versus your business,” she says.

Remember That What Starts Local Doesn’t Always Stay Local

Finally, Stephens says small-business owners should keep in mind that their political stances, particularly controversial messages, can travel far beyond their community and customer base. Social media can amplify a controversial political stance to a regional or national audience, which can have profound consequences — negative or positive — for your company that can be difficult to predict.

“Everyone’s on a hair-trigger right now on social media,” she says. “Your small business doing something in your community could have impacts that are much bigger for you, which could be good and bad. We have to remember that we’re not just playing in this local sandbox anymore when you start to go digital.”

Stephen Loy