In the spring of 2021, the Israel-Gaza conflict was making headlines worldwide. On social media, a PR war was happening, with people on both sides of the issue posting their opinions about and videos of the conflict.
When Sheila Nazarian, M.D., a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon who starred on Netflix’s Skin Decision: Before and After saw the anti-Israel sentiments that were spreading, she knew she couldn’t stay silent anymore.
“I went full-blown pro-Israel during the May 2021 conflict,” she says. “I felt like I had to speak up because a lot of my colleagues were spreading lies. I was going to try to help people learn the truth.”
Nazarian, an Iranian Jew who had to escape her country after the Iranian Revolution, always felt deeply connected to Israel. In the past, she hadn’t voiced her political opinions online, instead opting to post about plastic surgery and skincare. While some people disagreed with her post, overall, taking a political stance boosted her brand.
“My patients are intelligent people,” she says. “They either became obsessed with me for speaking up or they said, ‘I don’t agree with you, but I respect you and I know you have a good heart. You’re willing to say something and I’ll listen.’ It didn’t hurt me at all. It only helped.”
How to decide whether to talk about politics online
In recent years, an increasing number of companies and business owners have been speaking up about political issues, just like Nazarian. Whether businesses have posted about the 2020 presidential election, Black Lives Matter, gun control or a range of other issues, several haven’t been afraid to voice their opinions. This is in stark contrast to how businesses would operate in the past, when they’d stick to selling products and try to avoid controversy.
Perhaps, like Nazarian, companies feel the need to speak out. It could also be a response to the fact that many consumers want companies to get political. According to the “5WPR 2020 Consumer Culture Report,” 83% of 18- to 34-year-olds want to buy from companies that align with their personal values. However, if a consumer has different beliefs than a company, weighing in on controversial topics could be detrimental to a brand.
“The decision to take a stand on political issues comes with a risk,” says David Prosperi, executive vice president and managing director of KemperLesnik, a Chicago-based public relations and brand activation agency. “It can potentially attract new customers to your business, but the greater risk is that you alienate members of your current or potential customer base who may like your product and price but vehemently disagree with your political stance to the point that they take their business elsewhere.”
Does talking about politics online fit with your company’s mission?
Prosperi knows a thing or two about politics and business: He worked on two presidential campaigns and was White House assistant press secretary during the Reagan administration as well as press secretary to former vice president Dan Quayle during the 1988 presidential campaign. Before deciding to speak out about an issue, he urges business owners to determine how it fulfills their company’s purpose.
“Business owners should feel free to talk about their political views online if that fits with their mission and culture,” Prosperi says. “Their board of directors, customers, employees and investors must have a clear understanding of this approach and be aligned with it, as a certain political stance may conflict with their own views.”
When you speak up, it could go either way: You might lose customers and valuable opportunities, or you could potentially become bigger than ever. April White, CEO and founder of Trust Relations, a virtual strategic communications firm, had clients whose business owners were vocal about their political opinions online and it compromised a potential acquisition. But other clients who were vocal about political issues on LinkedIn were approached for interviews in the media.
What does your customer base look like?
When choosing whether or not to speak up, White encourages business owners to look at their customers and what kind of political opinions they hold.
“If you know your customer base and business associates, partners, sponsors, investors, etcetera all lean to one side of the political aisle, it’s not as dangerous to post about your political opinions,” she says. “However, if your target audience, colleagues and stakeholders are politically diverse, it could ostracize up to half of them if you vocalize your political thoughts online.”
Has your company talked about politics online in the past?
You should also look at your history of talking about politics online. White says that if you don’t have a history of doing this, you could appear opportunistic, or it might seem random to your customers to be doing it so suddenly.
But if you have spoken up in the past, “being vocal online about politics can simply appear as a continuation of your congruence as someone who has always been left- or right-leaning in your politics, and people now expect that of you,” she continues.
Will it have an impact on your employees?
It’s also crucial to think about how voicing your opinion could affect your employees and colleagues, if you have any. You don’t want to jeopardize their income, says D. Channing Muller, principal at DCM Communications.
“If it’s just you as the solopreneur, then you can make the decision quickly. If speaking out could affect the livelihood of five, 10 or 100-plus employees, then you need to be more careful in your decision-making process,” she says.
How important is speaking up to you?
Once you’ve weighed all the relevant factors, there’s one last thing to consider: How important is this issue to you?
Here’s what Nazarian advises: “Everyone has their own hill they’re willing to die on. Whatever your cause is, if you can’t not speak about it, then go ahead. We tell physicians in training that if you can become anything other than a doctor, do that. But if this is your calling, then you have to do it.”
How to talk about politics online
Now that you’ve decided to voice your opinion, it’s time to figure out how to go about it.
Think about what you’re going to say
First, collect your thoughts before making a move. Stephanie Scheller, CEO and founder of Grow Disrupt, works with small business owners on marketing and event production. She encourages her clients to calm down before hitting “post” and to be careful in choosing what they say and how they say it.
“I believe that there are ways to express beliefs and perspectives that matter without making it political,” she says. “For example, a small business owner can talk about how important it is to pay your people well without making it about minimum wage.”
According to Muller, you need to make sure you’re putting a statement out there that will add value to the conversation and not just become noise.
“There is a difference between showcasing your values online as they tie to political topics, usually the hotly debated ones too, and going online to rant about a current political issue,” she says. “Our values matter to us. We naturally become passionate when speaking about them, but that passion can also change into ranting and raving very quickly.”
Choose the right platform
It’s also a good idea to keep a business and personal brand separate. You might just want to post your opinions on your personal page instead.
“You may find you get just as much moral absolution from sharing on your personal without the same direct affect to business, good or bad,” Muller says.
If you and the PR firm you work with decide that it’s a good idea to speak up, Muller recommends finding the ideal platform to spread your message so that it has the most impact.
“Choose the platform that’s best for you whether it’s social media, an email to your customers and prospects, an op-ed in your local paper or a press release,” she says. “There is no one-size-fits-all.”
Assess the impact of talking about politics online
Once your message gets out there, assess how you did. How did your audience respond? Did your post spread like wildfire and make a positive impact? Was there a backlash?
If there was a backlash, consider investing in crisis communications to smooth things over. If it went over well, then you may want to keep posting your beliefs and expanding on them.
After Nazarian’s posts went viral—mostly in a positive way—she decided to become more of an activist and speak out on a daily basis. Now, she talks about Israel, antisemitism and speaking up about your beliefs for various organizations, and she hosts a podcast, The Closet, about this very topic. Being opinionated has only brought her closer to her clients and more business in general.
“I have more authentic conversations with people,” she says. “They aren’t wondering where I stand or who I am or what my core values are. Nothing is superficial now.”
She continues, “If you stand firm in your beliefs, it’ll be the best thing you ever did.”
Photo by Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock