Politics and Marketing

It’s an election year, and particularly when there is as contentious a race as this, it’s tempting for just about everyone to share an opinion here and there. For businesses large and small, however, this is almost always a colossal mistake.

Take, for instance, this summer’s media firestorm over the comments of Dan Cathy, President and Chief Operating Officer of fast-food enterprise Chic-Fil-A. Cathy came out strongly in opposition to gay marriage not only as his personal view, but also as a representative of Chic-Fil-A, and, not surprisingly, the media spread his message far and wide. While many consumers actively sought to support Cathy by making it a point to go to Chic-Fil-A, the flip side was a tremendously negative backlash including calls for boycotts and even a letter from Boston Mayor, Thomas Menino, letting Cathy know just how unwelcome a proposed new Chic-Fil-A location would be in his city.

The fact that Chic-Fil-A is a conservative organization that donates to causes that are in line with their faith-based philosophies is not new. However, for most consumers, having that message plastered all over the Internet and every major media outlet meant that they could not sit back passively. A great many people felt the need to respond, either by supporting the company or by actively boycotting it. In addition to the negative press and widespread boycotts, Chic-Fil-A had to invest countless personnel hours dealing with the fallout from Cathy’s remarks. This meant issuing statements to employees all over the country, training staff to deal appropriately with the media and the public, and keeping a proactive Public Relations message out in front of the story at all times.

The lesson here is that while the public may tolerate a business having a philosophy that is not in line with their personal beliefs, having a business’ top brass broadcast personal, political, religious, or other controversial opinions forces them to feel the need to make an active choice about the company: time to fish or cut bait, so to speak. Some consumers may even agree with the business’ statements but simply disagree with a restaurant entering the gay marriage debate and feel it’s just inappropriate, which creates a negative association no company can afford in this economy. Thus, unless your business is in the religion or politics arena, addressing such emotionally charged issues is generally not a wise choice.

From a marketing perspective, then, the question becomes, how does a company avoid making a Chic-Fil-A-sized mistake? Here are a few tips:

  1. First, take a look at your mission statement and/or value proposition. Are any of your company’s core philosophies controversial? Could they be construed as having a political bias?
  2. If so, take the time to discuss these issues with your Public Relations and/or Marketing team leaders, and come up with succinct, positive, proactive statements with which to respond, should any company representative be asked about those philosophies.
  3. Create an internal document that all team or department heads should review with their staff members, and remind your employees of your company’s policy on making political statements as a company representative, speaking to the media, wearing or displaying political propaganda items, and other similar activities. In short, get ahead of the issue before it ever becomes one.

How does your organization navigate the dangerous waters of marketing in an election year? We want to hear from you!