Q&A: Separating Business from Personal Politics

In case you missed it, venture capitalist/Silicon Valley money guru and Y Combinator founder Paul Graham–who helped startups like Dropbox and Airbnb achieve their impressive valuations–received a bit of negative attention from others in the tech scene over the past week for tweeting news stories about the Gaza conflict currently dominating headlines around the world. Here’s an example:

The tweets didn’t go over well with some Israeli members of the tech world. VC and sometime TechCrunch writer Roi Carthy wrote a blog post protesting Graham’s tweets and announcing his decision to stop working with Y Combinator in Israel. He spoke to Kevin Roose of New York magazine and compared Graham’s actions to those of Brendan Eich, who resigned as CEO of Mozilla after reports revealed his donations to the anti-gay marriage Prop 8 campaign:

“Due to mandatory army service, the tech industry and the army in Israel are intertwined…If you don’t recognize that, you shouldn’t be doing business with Israelis.”

The question: how can executives and other public figures avoid this potentially toxic meeting of politics and industry thought leadership?

We spoke to Stan Steinreich, CEO of Steinreich Communications, for his take.

What do you make of this story?

In business, there has to be a macro-level separation of church and state, so to speak. Your business persona needs to be one thing, and what you do in your private life needs to be something else. We can all recall many execs who have seen these worlds intersect, but when we get to extreme politics as a sport, you’re on very dangerous footing. We’re not talking about someone who makes campaign contribution to Obama or Bill and Melinda Gates, because such moves are seen as responsible.

We all have political opinions on things, but we need the responsibility to know when and how to express them properly. I’m sure the President himself has many opinions, and we don’t know all of them–nor should we.

Who provides a good model to follow in that respect?

Former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg’s media empire put him in the spotlight, and he won plaudits by being responsible. Over the past 24 hours, he announced plans to fly to Israel [in order to protest the FAA ban on such flights], and the biggest risk he took was flying commercial rather than private. He didn’t go on Twitter, didn’t share political points of view and didn’t deal with the conflict issue.

How, in the broader sense, can one express political opinions without attracting controversy?

Social media makes it very easy to access and post, but many executives don’t stop to think about the message they want to put out and how they want to phrase it; they put more time into a press release than a Twitter/Facebook post, but they have to realize that there is no less responsibility there than in traditional world of press releases and op-eds.

Every senior exec needs an adviser (not necessarily a PR firm, though I’d love for them to hire us) that they respect enough to consult when making posts–someone who they respect enough to challenge what they say.

We don’t agree with our clients all the time, and that’s OK. But we want to make them think about things they haven’t said before.

What’s the larger lesson learned here?

Looking at Paul Graham’s tweets, I ask, “Why on earth would he be posting these things? What will he gain?” If he were a chairman for Amnesty International, then maybe he would have a seat at this table. But he’s not a credible player in this debate.

Every word that comes from an executive’s mouth/pen/feed needs to pass a strategic litmus test. I’m not saying that people should be devoid of politics, but take George Soros: he has done some controversial things, but he’s still highly respected for his business acumen.

My assumption is that Graham has no PR infrastructure in place: he has a thought and he pushes buttons quickly due to his passion for wanting to make his opinion known. These tweets are probably damaging to his business.

Anyone reading this should view it as a wake up call to the danger of being flippant.