Survey: Businesses walk a fine line when speaking out about politics

The poll of hundreds of U.S. adults finds that younger consumers want bolder stances on social issues, but companies risk alienating half their customer base by taking a public position.    

Should companies take a public stand on political issues?

There’s a saying that business and politics don’t mix. However, in this polarized environment, businesses increasingly find themselves wrestling with that very question. A new survey sheds light on that dilemma.

This is not about Patagonia supporting the environment or Google opposing the repeal of Net Neutrality. In such cases, there’s a very clear impact on business, and one could argue that businesses are obligated in those cases to enter the fray.

Given the sharp divisions in the U.S. today, other social stands are fraught with consequences.

An October survey of 263 adult Americans seeks to bring objectivity and context to this business decision about politics.

The key findings follow:

1. Most say organizations should stay clear of politics. Nearly half (49 percent) of overall respondents say organizations should not weigh in on political issues. About one-third say they believe organizations should get involved, and another 22 percent are unsure. Sentiment analysis around this question suggests context matters.

2. Younger respondents are more likely to mix business and politics. A cross-tab analysis by age shows a compelling correlation between age and the viewpoint on this question. People ages 18–29 are more likely to say organizations should take political sides publicly (56 percent). The older the respondents, the more likely they are to say organizations should abstain from politics.

3. To agree or disagree is a pivotal question. If an organization takes a public political position with which respondents agree, about half (48 percent) are more likely to make a purchase and the other half (47 percent) are indifferent. However, the numbers swing the other way if the organization takes a position with which they disagree; 53 percent are less likely to make a purchase, and 40 percent are indifferent.

4. Women are more likely to act than men. A cross-tab analysis of this question by gender shows respondents identifying as women are 16 percent more likely than men to take action against a company that takes a political position with which they disagree. This shows that although men are more likely to say organizations shouldn’t get involved in politics, they are also less likely to act if a company does pick a political side.

5. Three key factors have a mitigating effect. If the quality, convenience or price of a product or service is better than that of the competition, respondents say they would still buy from an organization even if it took a political position with which they disagree.

The survey data suggest that an organization could take sides and not only survive but thrive. Still, it’s a risky proposition that would require extensive resources to navigate. The eggshells we walk on today are so delicate, even the high road brings risk.

If organizations are truly intent on being good corporate citizens, a better path would be to strive to unite people—be it the next Ice Bucket Challenge or a $5 million Super Bowl spot.

Frank Strong is the founder of Sword and the Script Media. A version of this post first appeared on Sword and the Script.

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