Should You Talk Politics in Business? Or Stay Neutral and Keep Your Mouth Shut?
October 2, 2020
THIS WEEK, am I right?
I literally didn’t sleep on Tuesday. Then I finally get to sleep, and wake up to this morning. How can you be talking about anything else right now?
*cue the person who’s definitely sending out emails right now about making the perfect pumpkin spiced latte*
Is that jarring to you? It’s a bit jarring to me—like someone running in the room and shouting, “There’s an active shooter outside and he’s coming for us all!” and you just staring straight ahead like a Stepford Wife, smiling for the camera as you give a webinar about branding.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t sell stuff—or talk about pumpkin spiced lattes. Of course, we must sell stuff (selling stuff is the best), and frankly, we must talk about pumpkin spiced lattes. Huge fan. But I question the decision to act oblivious to current affairs as a rule—especially because it’s such an elephant in the room when you do.
This begs a bigger question.
What is leadership? Is it something that we do as a brand, or something that we are as a person?
Should ya stay exclusively in your lane, stay focused on your message, and just continue to lead there? (Niching! Not offending anyone! Pumpkin spice 100 ways!) Or is leadership a quality that, by its very nature, transcends beyond that and permeates everything you do…because it must, if it is true?
In other words: can you escape the obligation of leadership if you’re really a leader?
And, should you?
To answer the mountain of existential questions I’ve just posed, I’d like to outline why many brands historically don’t talk politics or social issues or get involved and stay neutral.
Why most brands don't talk politics:
- Fear of losing money
- Fear of losing money
- Fear of losing money
- I think somewhere in this list there’s fear of losing money?
- Not knowing what the ass-liver they're talking about
- Fear of criticism
- Concern they won’t word it right / say it right / do it right
- The perception they have nothing meaningful / interesting / thoughtful / important / eloquent to add
- Not knowing what to say that hasn’t already been said?
- “I don’t want to pick sides.”
- “I’m not political.”
- “It’s not my brand.”
- Fear of offending customers
- Fear of losing money (…had to)
And maybe just a general unwillingness to engage.
Then there’s the flip side.
All the reasons why none of those reasons matter:
- Taking money from people who support ideas you actually despise makes this more a matter of character than politics
- Being ignorant on critical issues effectively rules out whether you’re a leader or not in the first place
- Saying “I’m not political” is like saying you’re drunk driving your way through life (and we all know that drunk drivers kill others)
- There is no neutral, because that old hat—silence is louder than words—very much applies
- Fearing criticism is an act of selfishness
- “It’s not my brand” is both irresponsible and short-sighted. Is a leader a prisoner to their brand, or the warden?
- Nothing good ever came from cowardice.
- And as for money? The argument for universal appeal demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding of how money is made in the first place.
There is one point here, however, that I can appreciate: and that's not knowing exactly what to say or how to say it.
Hell, most people aren’t sure how to ask for a latte at Starbucks, let alone something of this importance and magnitude. The pressure to do it “right” is enough to send even the most well-intentioned back to any Boo-Berry Pinterest board.
But here’s where I’m going to press.
People like you and I are different, here on the internet. We are creative and curious and community-minded and connected. We are forward-thinking and progressive by default through the very medium in which we thrive. We are leaders, or we wouldn’t be here in the first place. We are path-makers. We are the ones pushing forward in ways that other people haven’t even yet considered. We are the experimenters, the adventurers, the do-ers, the change-makers. We are in a unique position to lead, more than anyone else in the common population. Others may have their friends from high school as an audience on Facebook, but you and I have the world. No matter how small your platform is, you have one. You have a voice. You have in-roads. You have attention. You have access. And it’s our job to honor that—not just during the hours of 9-5 or when it suits one’s bottom line. But always, and in ways that matter to you, even if you aren’t sure it’s right—because at the very least, you will always be true. Independent of the industry you’re in, that's what the job IS. That’s what being a citizen of the internet is: being an engaged motherfucker who's true. That is what being a member of this online community means. Perhaps you were worried before about offending someone—before it was whether or not you could say the word “shit,” or take a hard stance on whether or not copywriting should be clear or clever. But now, it’s a guarantee. No matter what you do next, it will inevitably be offensive to someone.
So who will you choose to offend?
Reality must not be ignored, but wielded with deliberate intention and a clear heart.
The world needs a lot right now.
It needs bravery.
It needs hope.
It needs ideas.
It needs inspiration.
It needs creativity.
It needs bridges.
It needs empathy.
It needs strength.
It needs fighters.
It needs grace.
And most of all, it needs your leadership. The all-inclusive kind. The messy, real kind that shows up and keeps showing up, no matter what the circumstances are or how nervous you feel about it. Because that’s the only kind there is.
To not stand up, despite the complexities of doing so, does not make for a more fair, just or neutral leader in the end.
It merely makes for a mouse at a masquerade party.
And later, once the costume’s removed, it merely only makes for a mouse.