Freedom of speech is protected by the 1st amendment. Specifically, freedom of speech is the “right to communicate one's opinions and ideas without fear of government retaliation or censorship.” What does this have to do with owning your own business? In today’s technological age, expressing your opinions or exercising your freedom of speech can have a big impact on your business.
Some people mistake freedom of speech for having the right to say whatever they like without reprisal. That isn’t the case. The 1st amendment protects you from government retaliation, but it does not insulate you as a business from reprisal within the community or your customer base.
The problem with social media
The plethora of social media platforms available at the push of a button has made it increasingly important to ensure your business is expressing itself in a manor congruous to its mission. We have all heard stories about business executive that have found themselves in scalding water due to a tweet or Facebook post that was written off the cuff. It is very easy to be misunderstood when you have a limited amount of space with which to express yourself. If you’ve ever sent an angry text or email that you wish you could take back, you know what I mean.
As a company, you should develop rules for social media. Even if you have experts assigned to social media marketing, everyone on your team needs to be on the same page.
The issue of politics
Many companies have brought trouble upon themselves by delving into the dangerous field of politics. Especially during an election year, hot topics abound on the internet. Although it can be difficult to avoid the temptation to make public statements, it is sometimes not in the best interest of your business.
Sometimes your business can be affected by local or state politics that are largely out of your control. Whether you agree with the politics or not, a state’s laws can have a damaging effect on your business. A case in point is the recent news that the National Basketball Association (NBA) is moving their 2017 All-Star Game from Charlotte, North Carolina due to the state’s House Bill 2, which limits anti-discrimination protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the state. Whether a business in Charlotte approves of the bill or not, they are going to be negatively affected. It is estimated that the All-Star Game would have brought the city upwards of $100 million when all was said and done.
Although the moving of the All-Star Game will have a negative impact on Charlotte businesses, the damage is certainly not the result of individual companies and their political viewpoints. There are many cases, however, when a business is responsible for their own blowback issues. In the past few years, Target, Best Buy, JC Penney’s, and Disney are just some of the businesses in question. As these businesses quickly discovered, several issues have become lightning rods for criticism and debate, particularly when discussing same-sex marriage, immigrants, or controversial programs like Planned Parenthood. Tread carefully when discussing.
It’s not just an issue for the heavy hitters
Although mega-companies like Target can generally weather the storm caused by their political views, smaller start-ups often cannot. It doesn’t take much for a business to find itself smack dab in the middle of controversy. Consider the Colorado bakery that refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. The business was certainly within its rights to do so, but the act propelled them into the center of a fire storm. In fact, the business temporarily closed due to the backlash they received. Some supporters of the bakery cried for freedom of speech protection. Ultimately, however, the 1st amendment was not intended to protect such behavior. Yes, the owners of the bakery had every right to express their views and run their business as they saw fit. The resulting recoil, however, was far more than they anticipated.
What’s a business to do?
I am by no means saying that companies should erect an insulated bubble around their business and never venture out into the unknown. Far from it. Businesses have a certain obligation to stand up for what they believe is right and do their part to impact social issues where they can. I am merely suggesting that business resist from doing so unless they have a clear understanding of the issues, their position, and the potential response. We are a country built upon differing viewpoints and our ability to express those views is a strong tenant of our democracy.
It is important for businesses to establish a set of values around which they want to build their company. When issues come up that are against those values, by all means, stand up. It is when businesses speak before they understand who they are and what they believe in that trouble can start. Target for instance? They haven’t wavered on their support of the LGBT population regardless of the backlash. That is who they are. Even the bakery in Colorado is still standing firm atop their beliefs and has plans to reopen when the dust settles. I would guess, however, that they learned a very valuable lesson along the way that I am sure they don’t want to repeat.
The bottom line: Know who you are, and stand behind your convictions.