Culture wars are raging in Britain and America and businesses are stuck uncomfortably in the middle.
Executives have just witnessed many of their customers vote to leave the EU and reject large-scale immigration. They have witnessed a victory for Donald Trump. But they are also hearing a loud liberal backlash against both – amid concern people are moving in a populist direction. Businesses are being asked to take sides. What should they do?
In Britain, this backlash has been brought into sharp focus by the Stop Funding Hate campaign, which calls on businesses to stop advertising in newspapers they claim encourage division. Such campaigns are becoming common and businesses are being dragged unwillingly into highly sensitive political battles.
Historically, most firms, particularly in the UK, have avoided political comment at all costs. Not just on party politics but on all vaguely sensitive political issues – from immigration, to childcare, to gender. Where they have engaged publicly, it has tended to be very politically correct in tone.
This is because most senior executives tend to be well educated and very middle class – people who typically share such an outlook. But this approach has also been least likely to attract hostile criticism. The media, the political class and the influential upper middle class of London consider liberal left views to be morally right, mainstream and non-controversial.
Not commenting, or commenting in a standard liberal left way, was reasonable in the past. Businesses that kept their head down were left in peace. For those that did comment, the risk was low – only those that followed business news in detail would see them.
Social media changed everything. Businesses now find themselves held up to public scrutiny like never before. But we are also living through very politically charged times. There are now some very big, very divisive cultural issues at the heart of public debate. People feel strongly about these issues, comment on them and watch the debate that swirls around in response.
Businesses cannot simply opt out in the way they once did – and they cannot maintain a default liberal left setting when they do comment without experiencing a response. Even the act of not commenting can itself be portrayed as a highly political act – particularly in the face of a hostile campaign’s demands.
Many businesses pour vast sums into customer insight. They know where customers live, how much they earn, their purchasing habits and the media they consume. They know where to place ads and which newspapers to target with their PR. However, they tend to know little if anything about the values and broad political outlook of customers and potential customers.
If businesses are going to successfully navigate what is becoming a fraught and unpredictable environment, this must change. Businesses need a sense of where their customers stand politically to determine the right response when put under pressure.
For most businesses, the logical next step will certainly not be taking a clear stand on, say, Brexit and free movement (although for some it might). Rather, it will often mean avoiding blaming certain political events for their corporate performance, or avoiding calling on the government to follow particular policies, or being self-consciously respectful towards the differing views that the public might have on a given issue.
Hard as they might find it, sometimes businesses will need to be robust in the face of campaigns run by liberal left groups that have traditionally been the loudest and most persuasive. Customers are also voters and there are many that hold “small c” conservative positions on a range of things. Upset them at your own risk.