Is it good business to let your customers know your politics?
For Scott Van Duzer, owner of Big Apple Pizza & Pasta Italian Restaurant in Palm Beach, Florida and a registered Republican, the answer may be no. Last weekend he gave President Barack Obama a bear hug; the embrace and photo made it clear who he intends to vote for in the upcoming election. But now, some voters, and customers, have taken to Yelp to voice their unhappiness with Van Duzer’s political show of affection, and his business.
Conventional wisdom says small business owners should not share the political beliefs. Why alienate a significant portion of your customer base, anger employees and possibly vex vendors you do business with? But you’d never know that was the case with the current presidential election, in which both candidates are vying so intensely for the support of small business owners.
The web site Small Business Owners for Obama features several business owners, including Bill Butcher, of the Port City Brewing Company, in Alexandria, Virginia, and Brian Walsh, of XCL Medical Inc., in Charlotte, North Carolina, singing the praises of Barack Obama’s policies. And plenty of business owners have made it clear that they support Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. In June, James Hagedorn, CEO of Scotts Miracle-Gro Company, made it public that he gave $200,000 to the Restore Our Future super PAC that supports Romney. Then in July Chick-fil-A’s CEO Dan Cathy memorably made waves when he discussed gay marriage on the radio and practically ignited a culture war between Democrats and Republicans.
Of course, some business owners have always been vocal supporters of one party or another, but as it becomes more common in society to share personal details on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, technology may be driving entrepreneurs to be increasingly open about their political beliefs.
“We are sharing more, and we are more open about things, and the technology has driven us in that direction,” acknowledges Dr. Robert Preziosi, a professor of management at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. “You choose whether you want to be open or not that open, so to use technology as an excuse as to why business owners do it isn’t quite 100 percent accurate. But what technology has done has made it easier to get our opinions out there to people.”
It’s also natural that some business owners would want to make their political beliefs known, says Preziosi. “If you’ve been managing and leading, whether it’s a big or small business, what we’re seeing now aligns with that. You’re telling people what your values or whether, that you’re a Democrat, a Republican, an independent or whatever.”
That's how Sabina Ptacin, a co-founder of 'Preneur (www.preneur.net <www.preneur.net>), an online community and resource for entrepreneurs, sees it. "I've always been a really political person," says Ptacin, 34, who refrains from posting her political beliefs on her company's business page and business Twitter, nonetheless is open on her Facebook and Twitter pages, which she says are both filled with clients and business contacts. "The older I get, the more in touch I am, the more I'm aware how the political race impacts me. I think I realized the opportunity cost of not talking is far greater than speaking up, and while at the end of the day, I may lose some money, but that's far less of a concern than Obama losing the election."
Rodger Roeser, CEO of the Eisen Agency, a public relations and marketing firm in Cincinnati, Ohio, feels the same way--except he would much rather Mitt Romney win the election.
“In general, like religion and other touchy issues, I don’t come right off from meeting somebody and saying, ‘I‘m a Republican, and I love Rush Limbaugh. How about you?’ I don’t think that’s appropriate,” says Roeser. But like Ptacin, while Roeser refrains from posting his political beliefs on his business web page, he has clients on his personal Facebook page and if politics comes up in conversation, he doesn’t shy away from discussing it.
“I‘m proud to be a Republican, and I think through my actions, it’s probably a little bit obvious that I tend to be conservative,” says Roeser. Prezsiosi admires entrepreneurs who aren’t afraid to speak their political minds. “I think people who are open about those kinds of things are trustworthy and have integrity, and as a customer, you may trust the business owner more, even if their political views don’t align with yours,” says Prezsiosi.
Of course, that may be wishful thinking. “Unless you’re a politically inclined business and you make banners for either Obama or Romney, I don’t see the value in letting the public know your political beliefs. It’s such an inflammatory thing to do,” says Rachel Weingarten, a marketing and business etiquette consultant in New York City.
But wearing their political hearts on their sleeves may work for Ptacin and Roeser and other owners of companies that service the business community instead of the masses. “If your customer base is a general audience, then offending a large part of that audience could be troublesome, so certain places like restaurants, like a McDonald‘s, try very hard not to do that,” says Mitch Lovett, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Rochester.
But many businesses end up inadvertently showcasing their political preferences whether they realize it or not, says Rick Scott, assistant professor of finance at Saint Leo University in Florida.
“Many public businesses that have televisions in their establishments have begun to either knowingly or unknowingly announce their political beliefs,” Scott says. “If I go into a restaurant and it has Fox News on the channel, I‘m pretty sure that the owner or manager is a conservative. It they have CNN on, they are a liberal. If they have MSNBC on, they are a socialist. These are broad generalizations, but I always feel it is true.”
Scott says that for business owners who are overtly political, the upside is that your similarly minded customers “are more likely to patronize your establishment.” But he adds, “In most cases, I don’t think it makes up for the loss of customers that disagree.”
And if you find a disagreeable customer or client who is upset to learn you’re voting for the other guy?
“Try to turn around and deflect it, so they don’t leave angry,” advises Weingarten. “I would never back down from beliefs, but if you can tell them you didn’t realize they were so passionate about politics and come off as interested in hearing what they have to say, they may leave in a much better mood. Turn it into a conversation instead of a political statement.”
Gabe Aldridge, president of The SuperGroup, a marketing firm in Atlanta, echoes a similar sentiment. “I think as long as you’re respectful, people don’t mind disagreeing with you,” says Aldridge, who describes himself as libertarian-leaning independent and encourages political discussion among his employees.
Roeser, who says he has many close friends who are liberal, concurs. “Good, intelligent, lively debate is why we’re the greatest country in the world.”
(The author is a Reuters contributor)
Editing by John Peabody and Brian Tracey