Blending Business and Politics: Professional?

BY: ON THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 01, 2012

The rules for online professionalism seem to always be changing. I come from a newspaper background – an industry that has perhaps seen the greatest change in the past five years. The first rule of journalism is to remain unbiased, something that was clearly easier for employees to do in pre-Internet days. While a story that is printed on paper and in a digital format may still have a generally unbiased slant, a quick Google search of the owner of the byline often reveals their own personal belief system in areas like politics, religion and social issues.

And what about the publishing practice of endorsing political candidates? If a newspaper is supposed to present “just the facts” to readers and allow them to make their own conclusions, how is an endorsement of a political candidate ethical? Editors say it is just an extension of what already appears on the pages of the editorial section – an array of opinions. Still. Presenting such a political opinion seems to run counter to what newspapers and other media outlets claim to represent every other day of the year.

Take the surprise endorsement of U.S. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney by the Orlando Sentinel. In a swing state like Florida, political pundits seem to focus more energy on newspaper endorsements and the Sentinel faced a firestorm of criticism. Even sources considered relatively conservative had strong words for the newspaper, with Dick Morris claiming that newspaper candidate endorsements simply do not matter anymore and are irrelevant in the political conversation.

Ouch.

In August, ChamberofCommerce.com wrote on this blog about the new challenges that journalists face but why it is more important than ever to demand quality reporting.  I’d like to extend that thought a bit more and specifically to how what we do as individuals in cyberspace affects our professional persona. I think the current election season in the US is a great example of how personal opinions tend to blur with political leanings.

Whether it is an employee that accidentally Tweets a strong political opinion on a company profile, an editorial writer that develops a position meant to represent an entire media outlet, or someone associated with a brand that uses a personal account for staunch political views, cyberspace is a vast place to gain supporters and enemies. Some examples of companies that have faced backlash and praise online for expressing political opinions recently include:

  • “Papa” John Schnatter set the Twitterverse aflutter with his comments that the health care reform passed in Obamacare will cost his company so much that he will have to start charging an extra 15 to 20 cents for every pizza he sells. Those that agreed with Papa John’s politics praised him for speaking up; critics scoffed at the implication that a rise in the cost of a luxury like pizza should even be part of the healthcare conversation.

  • On the eve of the Democratic National Convention, the CEO for Duke Energy went on a live television news show claiming that President Obama is good for energy policy. Jim Rogers is the head of Duke, a company that recently merged with Progress Energy to make it the largest utility in the US. He said that Obama’s interest in natural gas and alternative energy is good for the country and his company. Obama supporters cheered Rogers’ claims, while critics said it was just a publicity stunt for the city of Charlotte – home to Duke Energy and the Democratic National Convention.

  • Darden Restaurants, the owner of popular chains like Olive Garden and Red Lobster, sent an email to employees urging them to vote for Mitt Romney, saying that the effects of Obamacare would force the company to have to cut hours for part-time employees. In this instance, supporters of the company say that in order for it stay profitable with industry-wide slim profit margins, it cannot pay health insurance benefits to every employee that goes over 30 hours per week. Critics, including many employees, say that Darden pointing the finger at Obamacare is just an excuse for what Darden does anyway – pay employees a low wage and keep hours from reaching benefit levels.

It is tough to say if business will be affected either way as a result of these outspoken measures. Reason says that a CEO like Jim Rogers has less to lose by putting his opinion on the line regarding a candidate because he is the only electric utility available to his customers. On the other hand, pizza delivery chains and casual dining establishments have stiffer competition for revenue. In all three of these cases, and also the Orlando Sentinel, these are large, well-branded entities that have enough core customers to withstand a few (million) dissenters.

Remember the gay marriage debacle with the Chick-fil-A founder a few months ago? That’s right. People are still buying enough chicken sandwiches and cups of coleslaw to keep the mascot cows busy filming commercials. Even though some people, like a Chicago Alderman, tried to take a stance against Chick-fil-A’s view.

But what about small businesses? Is it wise for owner-operators of community based companies to throw their hat in the ring when it comes to politics? What about online-based companies that are inherently linked to the political commentary their employees make in non-official forums?  Are there political and professional boundaries?

I say yes – for the majority of businesses, staying politically neutral is the best bet. If your personal Twitter and Facebook feeds are not proof enough, people are very passionate about politics. Let your local political organizations take care of political viewpoints. Why stir up those strong feelings if you don’t have to?

I’m interested to see what other people have to say about this issue and how they handle their own business ventures in regards to politics and other hot button topics.

About the Author

Katie Parsons

Katie Parsons is a regular contributor to ChamberofCommerce.com. She is a freelance writer, editor and researcher with a background in the news and publishing industries. She can be read in Florida Today and Space Coast Parent and on sites like GalTime and the Huffington Post.

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