Tips for Businesses Navigating the Current Political Minefield

We are entering what will likely be one of the most divisive election seasons in our nation’s history. Regardless of party affiliation or candidate preferences, this has real implications for all entrepreneurs. Missteps can alienate customers and damage businesses.

The simple solution seems to be to stay out of politics altogether, but in reality, this is virtually impossible. Further, it asks entrepreneurs to give up one of our most cherished freedoms, the right to participate in the democratic process.

Government policies directly impact businesses, and different political candidates offer different policies. Some candidates’ platforms may appear more beneficial for the general business climate. Some may be more sympathetic to specific types of businesses or industries.

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In this context, it makes perfect sense for entrepreneurs to be politically engaged. The challenge is to make that engagement productive, while minimizing any collateral damage.

The first step to threading the political/business needle is to be informed. Learn about the issues and the candidates from different sources and different points of view. Separating information from misinformation can be challenging; doing a little background research on your sources themselves can help.

If you decide to back candidates in specific elections, discretion is generally advisable. Placing campaign signs and materials in your place of business is guaranteed to offend supporters of other candidates. Campaigning publicly also creates a level of visibility that, unless your business is so large it can withstand the attendant negativity, is best avoided.

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Even financial contributions should be made with the understanding that apart from small amounts, they are public information and often reported. The public and the candidates themselves take note of who gives to whom. This is why some larger donors give to more than one candidate in the same race.

Better options include putting a campaign sign in front of your house, and perhaps making contributions in your spouse’s name. For local elections, something that really helps candidates is hosting small “meet-and-greet” events that enable them to speak directly to potential voters. You can coordinate this with friends and have these events at their houses, enabling you to participate while keeping your business well separated.

With a heated national election like the one ahead of us chances are very good that some of your clientele are passionate about the candidates, and may even be aggressive in expressing their views and in challenging those who disagree. This can be particularly problematic if yours is a public-space business, and arguments break out. Asking patrons to tone it down will often work, but if things get really heated, having the offending customer leave is essential. That person may never come back, but you reduce the chances of losing other customers as well.

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Another challenge is when someone asks you, in your place of business, which candidate you are supporting. Deflecting the question is probably best. “I don’t discuss politics at work,” or “I prefer not to discuss who I vote for” may diffuse the situation. Even if pressed, sticking to this is a reasonable response and should be respected by reasonable people.

If you prefer to answer, and the questioner disagrees, the workplace is definitely not the right environment for a political debate, whether calm or heated. Use your best people skills to keep the conversation respectful and brief. If the person is someone you know well enough to continue the discussion, set a time and place away from business.

Entrepreneurs are 100% entitled to their political views and have every right to engage politically. But the reality is that visible political activity leaves one vulnerable to backlash that can really damage a business. Be active, be careful, be smart. And vote!

Keith Twitchell spent 16 years running his own business before becoming president of the Committee for a Better New Orleans. He has observed, supported and participated in entrepreneurial ventures at the street, neighborhood, nonprofit, micro- and macro-business levels.

Keith Twitchell

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