To Be or Not to Be a Partisan Brand

Should companies mix business and politics?

A hand moving a politics knob
When CEOs think about mixing business and politics, most fear a PR disaster. They shouldn’t. Photo Illustration: Trent Joaquin
Headshot of Jeb Ory

In the United States, brands cannot hide from politics. The public knows that your company has a stake in this country’s legislative and regulatory battles. The question is, how can you engage in issues that matter to people while demonstrating integrity and not destroying your business?

Do not be partisan

On July 9, Robert Unanue, CEO of Goya Foods, participated in a roundtable with Hispanic leaders at the White House. During remarks in the Cabinet Room, Unanue said, “We’re all truly blessed… to have a leader like President Trump.”

Twitter went berserk. Anti-Trumpers bashed the billionaire scion of a Hispanic foods empire for praising a president known for his divisive comments about Latinx immigrants. Pro-Trumpers accused Unanue’s detractors of suppressing free speech. Goya boycotts and buycotts dueled across social media.

What if, instead, Unanue had used his remarks to highlight Goya Gives, a company program that has donated some 300,000 pounds of food to U.S. nonprofits to alleviate food insecurity during the pandemic? Unanue could have advocated for food security policies in a Covid-19-stricken world. He even could have asked TV viewers to join a digital campaign urging lawmakers to support a national food security bill. Goya missed the opportunity to unite its stakeholders behind a moral cause.

Be real about your cause

In this country, brands often mix up virtue signaling with issue advocacy. For example, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, brands raced to make statements about their commitment to diversity. Surely you read statements to the effect of, “We stand with [insert safe term chosen by PR team], so we’re launching a program to [hire and promote people we should have been hiring and promoting for decades?]”

Pursuing organizational diversity is a worthy goal and a must if your organization is serious about addressing systemic racism. However, it doesn’t fix the public institutions that caused diversity problems in the first place.

Brands can advocate to change those institutions that enable scourges like racial and educational inequality by mobilizing their stakeholders in digital campaigns to message lawmakers and demand specific legislation that would change the playing field for people of color.

Brands must be vigilant to not violate the first rule. If your brand is already partisan or vocal on partisan issues, that ship has sailed. Don’t stress. If your stakeholders are politically diverse, be extremely disciplined in your messaging and try to support bipartisan initiatives.  

Don’t buck yourself

By buck, I mean don’t knock yourself off the bronco when you’re on top and in control (obviously). To illustrate, Microsoft has one of the most inspiring sustainability programs in the world. The company is committed to going carbon negative by 2030 and plans to remove all of its historical emissions by 2050. It also plans to invest $1 billion in clean energy technologies over the next four years.

However, in federal debates about climate policy, Microsoft has the voice of a dormouse. Its advocacy for a carbon tax is drowned out by louder advocates—and those that disagree that climate change is an issue.

Here’s the thing: Microsoft’s stakeholders are politically diverse, and its clients include high-emitting oil, gas and cement companies. Microsoft would be called out for hypocrisy if it entered the climate policy debate too aggressively. Plus, Microsoft was in talks to acquire TikTok from China-based ByteDance, which will expose Microsoft to data-privacy policymaking. It needs some political capital. 

What could Microsoft advocate for now? Voting.

Through “Get out the vote” initiatives, Microsoft can provide a platform for its stakeholders to play an active role in the civic process. A Microsoft digital election center would give stakeholders a place to check whether they are registered, help them register if not, direct them to polling locations or mail-in voting resources and introduce the officials on their ballot. It would be up to individuals using it to decide who to vote for, and would pave the way for those stakeholders who feel passionately about climate change to select candidates who supported that goal or any other policy outcome.

Don’t fear the wrong things

When CEOs think about mixing business and politics, most fear a PR disaster. They shouldn’t. They should fear looking irrelevant and hypocritical in a politically conscious culture.

Politics is not about bashing or praising elected officials. It is not about bandwagoning onto trendy social causes. And it’s not about grandstanding to make your company seem like it is enlightened.

Instead, seek to understand your stakeholders and align your advocacy efforts with their values. That is how to mix business and politics.


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@jebory Jeb Ory is CEO of Phone2Action.
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