To Take a Stand…or Not

My last two articles seem to have struck a chord and the number of emails and comments has been surprising.  Those pieces, you may recall, talked about mixing politics and your business, and wrestling with the overlap of one’s personal and professional lives thanks to social media.  Clearly a lot of you out there are contemplating—and struggling with—those issues in your businesses.

At the end of the day, whatever business you’re in, large or small, service-oriented or product-focused, your objective is to sell what you’ve got to offer, conclude the transaction with some degree of profitability, make sure the customer is happy and find the next one.  There’s a lot that can go wrong internally with that relatively basic calculus: the wrong or inferior product, poor pricing, a bad customer experience, a bad customer, just plain bad luck.  You’ve got to be on your toes to keep everything running smoothly, and consistent success is a genuine accomplishment.

Externally your business is buffeted by forces which are far from your control: economic changes, both local and global; regulatory changes; disruptive technologies; fads; politics; internet trolls.   Good companies respond as best they can, adjusting to the new order of things, and continue to succeed.  Others, of course, fail to adapt and are relegated to the dustbin of history (I’ve waited 3 years to be able to use that phrase).  Strategic planning is critical to responding (ultimately with success or not) and most organizations know how to work those levers and make the best adjustments they can under the circumstances.  There’s a long history of this kind of work in business, and many models from which to draw.

A business taking a public stand on issues large and small is not particularly new, though no one would argue that the corporate world as a whole puts social or moral/ethical issues at the forefront of its operating principles.  It does sometimes happen though: consider the names Hobby Lobby and Target to name but two of recent notoriety. There are others as well, large and small whose positions become known far beyond their customer reach thanks to social media.  It is this last bit that needs further discussion.

Remember that you’re in business to make a living for yourself, your employees and shareholders.  Social responsibility, ethical practices, enlightened investment in the greater community are important contributors to your business being a good neighbor, a role model, even an agent of change.  Historically those companies whose public persona was more than just a profit machine had a much easier time policing their image—they managed the resources.  However, it was difficult to separate those companies truly committed to broader issues than those who felt it sold more stuff to appear that way.  All you had to work with was what you saw, and what, occasionally, great investigative reporting or relentless activists’ efforts (think Ralph Nader and auto safety) exposed.

Social media has truly changed all that.  Not only is it nearly impossible for a false image to remain intact for long, the universal access to a global stage which we carry around on our smartphones has made it possible for rumor to become fact, facts to become distorted out of context, and half-considered opinions to become accepted as truth.  Now a business has to deal, not only with how it presents itself to the outside world, but how well it lives up to that persona.  The catch is, now those who are judging that matchup between positioning and reality are not required to support their positions.  If you follow even a small amount of social media traffic you’ll see stories about celebrities who are reported to be dead, but aren’t.  Crimes which were supposed to have been committed but weren’t.  Dialog that goes from differences of opinion to vitriol in two sentences.  With ubiquitous access without consequence has come a boldness to say whatever comes to mind, sans filter.  For a company trying to sell its products and services, whether with a layer of social or ethical principles underpinning its business practices, or without a public position, it’s no longer just about finding prospects and turning them into customers: there’s a message to manage, perceptions to monitor, proof points to maintain.  Ultimately that’s a good thing; a company should have to prove its claims and earn its place in the market.  For a while, however, as we transition from “old school” to “new media” there’s no complete playbook; it’s important to stay true to what you do and what you want the world to know about your business, but also have a plan for what happens when “that person” decides to put you in the cross hairs.

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