The risks and benefits of mixing business with politics

  1. A man in a Donald Trump mask.
    James Martini

    James Martini UKBF Ace Staff Member

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    Not so long ago, received wisdom in the PR industry was that mainstream businesses should keep their politics quiet, and avoid being seen to support one party or cause over another.

    Of course a little digging would often reveal a firm’s politics in the form of donations or party memberships, but it rarely featured in marketing.

    Things are quite different in 2019, though, as entrepreneurs and chief executives increasingly either cash in on topical social issues by creating products that make political statements, or throw their weight publicly behind political campaigns.

    Tim Martin, the Wetherspoons supremo and vocal Brexiteer, nailed his colours to the mast early on in the lead-up to the referendum on the UK’s future relationship with the EU on 23 June 2016. He also vowed to fill his 900 or so pubs solely with British booze. No more Champagne then, and a bitter blow to those who use the pub chain to sip its best-selling drink – Lavazza, the Italian coffee.

    Mixing business with politics can be risky. If your customers disagree with your beliefs, they could walk away. Conversely, you could reinforce relations with your clients if they are singing from the same hymn sheet. There’s a fine balance to be struck.

    In Mr Martin’s case, his bold approach appears to have paid off, at least going by Wetherspoons’ share price. The value of one Wetherspoons share reached an all-time low of 677p during the week after the Brexit referendum, before doubling in value to reach 1,252p at the time of writing.

    As satirical website the Daily Mash memorably put it in one spoof story, “Britons who would like to boycott Wetherspoons because of its chairman’s political views have admitted it is impossible”.

    Capitalising on social issues

    Artist Heath Kane hit the headlines in 2016 after unveiling his Masks of Fear collection which features satirical prints of world leaders, such as President Trump and Kim Jong-un.

    El Trump’ depicted the outspoken US president in a Mexican wrestling mask and proved extremely popular with consumers. Kane followed that up with another bestseller – a print of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un in Mickey Mouse ears, which went down equally well with punters.

    The images were released as postcards and A5 prints, and they sold out in 20 minutes - at £150 a pop. “My prints have become poster children for people who want to have political conversations,” he told the Telegraph at the time.

    On a much bigger scale, shaving giant Gillette made waves recently when embracing the #MeToo movement in its new advertising campaign. It replaced its age-old slogan ‘the best a man can get’ with ‘the best men can be’ – much to the dismay of conservative consumers (more on that later).

    Abuse on social media

    When a business declares its politics, it opens itself up to criticism. While ‘Spoons appears to have been unaffected by their chairman’s political stance, it has battened down the hatches on social media to swat away ‘trolls’ directing vitriolic abuse in its direction.

    In April last year, Mr Martin took the radical step of closing all of the pub chain's social media accounts – Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, linking the move to bad publicity surrounding the ‘trolling’ of MPs.

    Most businesses use social media as a customer service platform, either to promote products or to resolve client queries. “We are going against conventional wisdom that these platforms are a vital component of a successful business,” Mr Martin told the BBC.

    “We were also concerned that pub managers were being side-tracked from the real job of serving customers,” he said. “I don't believe that closing these accounts will affect our business whatsoever.”

    No such thing as bad publicity

    There’s a school of thought that says even if people are slagging off your business, at the very least it will be on people’s minds and prompting debate. It will be relevant and the brand will get good exposure, regardless of the risk of consumer boycotts and protests.

    When broadcaster Piers Morgan reacted to the new Gillette advert in apparent rage, their PR team were probably delighted. The Good Morning, Britain presenter tweeted “this absurd virtue-signalling PC guff may drive me away to a company less eager to fuel the current pathetic global assault on masculinity. Let boys be damn boys. Let men be damn men”, essentially calling on fellow clients to boycott the brand.

    On the other side of the Atlantic, conservative Americans were literally ripping Nike’s infamous tick from their shoes and burning their tracksuit bottoms in protest at Colin Kaepernick's appointment as the face of an ad campaign for the brand. All this because the former American football quarterback expressed his disapproval of what he perceived to be racial injustice and police brutality by kneeling as Star-Spangled Banner was played before an NFL game. But consumers had still parted with their hard-earned cash to buy Nike products in the first place, so the business had been done.

    There is an argument that Britain is in the throes of a culture war – Remain vs. Leave, young vs. old, liberal vs. conservative, environmentalists vs. climate-change deniers, and so on. In that context, every business will find its values under scrutiny, from theoretical allies just as much as those on the other team. And if keeping politics out of business is unavoidable, you might as well try to benefit from it.

  2. MandaBarnes

    MandaBarnes UKBF Newcomer Free Member

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    I find this topic very interesting! As an event planner, I rarely assertated my personal views or beliefs publicly. My clientele got my positive feedback on topics that I agreed with them on, although I regularly overlooked the subjects that I disagreed with them on. Looking back, I can't say that I'm proud of this fact, however, there is something to be said for tact when it comes to corresponding with a client. Now, mind you I certainly will stand up for my opinion, but I will surely never go out of my way looking for an argument and sometimes you just know when it will end that way. Generally, the customers who differed in opinions from myself just found their way elsewhere, while those in line with myself stayed on. Funny how that works out in the end!
    Posted: Feb 7, 2019 By: MandaBarnes Member since: Feb 7, 2019
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  3. The Byre

    The Byre UKBF Legend Full Member

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    Brexit is the exception and will probably remain so. Businesses that are coming down hard on one side or the other, are doing so out of absolute self-interest.

    Those major business figures advocating Brexit are nearly all 'off-shoring' i.e. earning money by investing assets outside the EU. They are very, very worried about the Anti Tax Avoidance Directive, as this will tax them as if all assets and production were within the EU. Behind the scenes, they are lobbying hard for the non-introduction of ATAD and a hard Brexit would suit them perfectly. Dyson (the man who said that the UK should join the Euro) is moving his nominal HQ to Singapore because that way, he hopes to avoid being stung by ATAD.

    On the Remain side, the various industries that are siting Brexit as one of the reasons for closing down factories or just doing a Nissan and sitting on their hands and not investing are doing so largely because they are suffering from over-capacity. The car industry in particular is looking for excuses to close factories and not just in the UK. Ford and GM have pulled out of Australia. GM is out of Europe completely and Ford would love to close down in the UK, with or without membership of the EU. Blaming Brexit is just very convenient.

    The various businesses that are making noises over Brexit, for and against, are definitely not advocating any other political causes. The golden rule in PR about party politics remains!
    Posted: Feb 8, 2019 By: The Byre Member since: Aug 13, 2013