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Should Companies Remain Politically Neutral on Social Media?

At this point, a sizable proportion of your Facebook friends have changed their profile picture to an image filtered through a rainbow flag to celebrate a landmark Supreme Court decision that made same-sex marriage a right nationwide. Companies, public figures, and millions of other people across the country and world have taken to social media to commemorate the occasion, including the 26 million Facebook users (and counting) who’ve changed their Facebook photos to show support. 

Companies displayed an outpouring of support for the decision on social media, from corporate giants to small startups. 

Not only was the corporate support apparent on social media, but many companies also altered their logos with rainbows to voice their support, including Medium, Vimeo, and AT&T. Companies spun some lighthearted fun into their celebrating of the decision, such as Uber who changed their app by adding a rainbow trail to cars on the map, to the delight of many users. 

The question is, should companies remain politically neutral on social media, or should they remain true to their values and not worry about angering some customers? I would say that it depends. The fact is, some social issues become intertwined with business. General Mills and many other companies have asserted that public statements on gay rights can actually help them attract top talent and consumer loyalty. 

Starbucks, a company that has spoken in support of same-sex marriage, has been the target of a National Organization for Marriage-driven boycott for several months, where allegedly over 45,000 customers have joined the boycott. The organization has claimed that Starbucks is currently experiencing “public backlash.” However, Starbucks has brushed off this claim.

“We’ve seen no impact on our business,” said spokesman Zack Hutson of the boycott. “We deeply respect the views of our partners and customers and are always listening. But at the end of the day, it’s a decision that we made through the lens of humanity that we feel is consistent with our culture.” Starbucks has made it a habit to try to serve as an ethical and socially responsible model and has been outspoken about current social and environmental issues. 

However, there are important considerations that must be addressed before launching sweeping social media campaigns that address certain hot-button, or even mildly discussed issues. First, would your target market generally agree with your approach? You do not want to lose the bulk of your customers due to speaking out about a matter that may be important to the core of your company values. Know your target market: their user profile, demographics, and views (even if inferred). Consider that what leaders of a company may say can be quoted, even out of context, on news outlets and on social media. 

For example, Chick-fil-A, a southern fast food chain, got itself into hot water after public statements inspired an influx of negative publicity. There were calls for Chick-fil-A boycotts on social media, and their brand approval rating plummeted. Dan Cathy, a self-described evangelical Christian and the CEO of Chick-fil-A, says he made a mistake. Cathy admitted his anti-equality stance wasn’t a wise business decision, regretting “making the company a symbol in the marriage debate.”

The takeaway is, be careful with alienating large market segments and be mindful of offending your customers. If you’re not sure how your audience will take a certain politically slanted social media post or statement, you may want to err on the side of caution and remain neutral. If your position is in the minority and could be construed as deeply upsetting or causing widespread public outrage, you may want to do a cost-benefit analysis. 

Championing social causes can be a great idea that brings increased success (public support, increased brand loyalty, and contributing to public discourse on the cause) , or it could blow up in your face and hurt your brand. Your choice to speak up depends on how much your company cares, how much opposition you face, and what you stand to gain. 

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