Are you feelin’ the Bern? On the Trump train? Rooting for Hillary? An ardent Cruz supporter? Well, if you’re a CEO or other high-level executive, it may not be a good idea to say so. While you may have the urge to weigh in with an opinion on an election when emotions are running high, you should first carefully consider whether your partisan remarks are relevant to your message and whether there’s a chance they could backfire.
If you follow the wildly popular Humans of New York Facebook site, you may have seen creator Brandon Stanton‘s post, An Open Letter to Donald Trump, in which he states that he struggled with whether he should take the unprecedented step of using his blog (which has 17.4 million likes) to make a bold political statement. Specifically, he states, “I didn’t want to risk any personal goodwill by appearing to take sides in a contentious election.” It’s something he’s firmly opposed in the past, carefully screening his posts to ensure they avoid anything political that would detract from his mission of covering the “ordinary person.” But he ultimately concluded that speaking out against Trump is “no longer a political decision. It is a moral one.”
Stanton was overwhelmed by the response. The letter currently has 2.1 million likes, 71,000 comments, and 1.1 million shares, and led to coverage in The New York Times, The Washington Post, an interview with Yahoo Global News Anchor Katie Couric, and other media attention. According to The New York Times, it was one of the most-shared posts in the history of Facebook. In Stanton’s case, entering the political fray only strengthened his image and likability, but largely because his statements did seem in line with his mission. However, if you are, for example, a CEO of a financial services firm, is it really a good idea to make a similar move? Here are a few tips to keep in mind before making that decision:
Staying on message. Is your statement relevant to your cause? If you’re publicly backing a particular candidate, consider expressing your view in terms of how his or her candidacy is relevant to your clients, your mission, or your firm. Or better yet, consider speaking about your views on a relevant policy, then explaining how each candidate would either negatively or positively impact that policy. If you believe, for instance, that politics and energy policy played a role in the recent collapse of energy Master Limited Partnerships, then consider speaking about how each candidate’s platform factors into that issue.
Avoiding unnecessary conflict. Don’t make a political statement on a hot-button issue simply to be provocative. Lightning rod issues have a way of inflicting damage. You should consider possible outcomes carefully before speaking out on anything inflammatory or highly controversial. That doesn’t mean, however, you should avoid a contentious political viewpoint—it just means you should ensure that it’s significant enough to your business that it needs to be addressed, and that you understand the long term effect of stating it publicly.
Watching out for the extremes. Make a reasoned choice, not a preposterous one. If your political beliefs are unpopular or somewhat polemical, they may draw attention away from your cause. Expressing support for that third-party underdog with an unusual platform could backfire as you alienate prospective clients or customers instead of attract them, and even erode your base. And, of course, as much as possible, you want to be right. If you support someone who has virtually no chance of winning an election, it’s probably best to keep it to yourself.
Expressing a unique political view can be an effective way of separating an executive leader from the herd. If your political statements do draw media coverage, you can artfully broaden that conversation to include aspects of your business that directly impact the people you serve. In the end, it’s about strengthening your brand and drawing positive attention to build your business and serve your clientele. Speaking out in an election season can be a risk, but sometimes, it’s one that might be worth taking.