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Be Careful Mixing Business and Politics

By Dan Bobinski

Recent news reports indicate that some Americans are miffed about MCI’s use of Danny Glover as a pitchman for their local/long distance service. They don’t like the fact that Glover is calling President Bush a racist, or that he’s praising Fidel Castro as a hero.

The issue once again raises the question of mixing business and politics.

In reality, politics touches all of our lives, and each company must decide for itself its comfort level with political involvement.

As I see it, politics polarizes. For example, about 30% of Americans are going to love Bill Clinton no matter what, and about 30% are going to discard everything he says, no matter what. The same goes for President Bush. And while a Pro-Bush person can’t figure out for the life of him why someone else is Anti-Bush, the reverse is also true.

The problem with bringing politics into business is that it creates strong feelings in 60% of your customers: 30% will strongly agree with you; 30% will strongly disagree. Those who choose to promote their politics at work are often trying to reach the 40% in the middle. But what is the cost, and is worth agitating 30% of your customers?

Those familiar with the strategies of debate know that when there is only one difference between two people with differing opinions, it’s much easier to win someone over. But as soon as multiple differences of opinion are on the table, a mental chasm can emerge and grow.

In business, when your objective is to create a mutually beneficial transaction, why start off with a chasm that doesn’t need to be there? Building bridges is tough enough—ask any salesperson!

Of course, some people are very comfortable about their political views and could care less about any loss of business. As one retailer I know says, “It's too bad that some people ‘won't do business with me’ because of what's said here. Letting petty, political viewpoints stand in the way of doing business is their misfortune.”

In some places polarizing views are paying off, and the maxim “there is no such thing as bad publicity” is carrying weight. MCI, for example, had to have been aware of Glover’s political stance long before they hired him. Yet the ad series is scoring high on “likeability” scales and is making money for the company.

Then there are the Dixie Chicks. Their anti-Bush comment touched off a firestorm of protest among some, but brought a rally of support from others. As a result, their concerts are sold out and now they grace the covers of several magazines. My guess is they wouldn’t be on those magazine covers had their political controversy not occurred.

However, as I said earlier, politics polarizes, and each company must decide for itself its comfort level with political involvement.

Traditionally, most companies operate in a safe middle ground – because most companies fit in the classification of small business and highly political views can backfire for a small business.

Think about it: The cases where high-profile people with polarizing comments are turning a profit occur in large corporations. And not too many people are going to know if you signed up for MCI or if you play the Dixie Chicks on your home stereo. There’s a sense of privacy in those purchases.

But if you’re Joe the Printer down on Main Street with a large “VOTE ‘YES’ ON CONTROVERSIAL ISSUE X” poster hanging on your storefront, some people will not want to do business with you. On Main Street USA, many don’t want the “guilt by association” as their neighbors see them walk in your door. Generally, the buying public does not like conflict.

I’m not saying don’t do it, but becoming political with your business is not something to take lightly. Just be sure to count the cost. (Or the profit, as the case may be.)

© 2003 Dan Bobinski / Leadership Development. Dan Bobinski is President of Leadership Development. He can be reached at (208) 375-7606 or by Email at dan@leadershipanswers.com.
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