Publicly supporting your favorite politician is your right, but remember you risk alienating half your customers in the process.

The presidential election is coming up and we’ve been bombarded with advertisements either praising or lambasting the candidates for many months. As politics dominate the world we live in, it seems like everyone has an opinion and wants to share it. The rancorous debate that erupts makes me a little uncomfortable, frankly.

It’s times like these that I recall what a business owner once told me as we spoke about a controversial issue in our hometown. I was serving on the city council and the well-known businessman wanted to share his input with me, but he was hesitant to come to a council meeting and speak up in public.

“Small-business owners don’t have freedom of speech,” he said with some degree of regret. Having owned a business myself, I understood his point. Operating a business, it’s prudent to keep away from the political fray — whether it’s a local zoning issue or a presidential election. Why? In case it’s not obvious, choosing sides in any contentious debate is likely to offend a significant percentage of your potential customer base.

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Don’t go there
Displaying the courage of your convictions is admirable on some level, but I contend you are ill-advised to do so if you want to maximize your revenue. This is especially true in the competitive marketplace of a small town, but we’ve seen that even huge multinational companies can be hurt when they speak out on one side of a political issue.

I prefer not engaging in prickly political issues anyway, so I typically don’t put campaign signs in my front yard or send letters supporting one candidate or another to the local newspaper. It’s not in my nature to do that, but at the same time, not engaging in the political debate in a public way serves my business interests well, too.

Conservative or liberal, tree hugger or free trader; it just doesn’t make sense to make your political views public if you’re in business. Or does it?

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It’s clear not everyone agrees with me and the small-business friend mentioned earlier. At least once in every major election year, I see a local business display multiple signs supporting one candidate or political issue. I also read letters to the editor from business owners doing the same. If the electorate is split fairly evenly, how is becoming embroiled in politics not going to have an impact on the bottom line?

Mogul disagrees
Daniel Roth, executive editor for LinkedIn, had an interesting exchange on the topic of mixing business and politics recently during an interview with Richard Branson, the flamboyant CEO of airline Virgin America. After watching Branson support Colorado legalizing marijuana during a press conference, Roth asked the business mogul if it was a wise thing to do. He suggested it might be in Branson’s best interest to keep his opinions to himself.

“I think it’s very sad if an entrepreneur or somebody who is running a company thinks the only thing that matters is profit,” Branson responded. “If every single business leader in the world can adopt a problem or an issue, we would get on top of every single problem in the world. All you have to do is one thing. Pick an issue.”

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Roth’s reaction? He said it might be easier for Branson to speak out because he’s already made his billions. He wondered, though, if Branson represents a trend across the business spectrum; that maybe the traditional way of thinking my business-owning friend and I embrace is somehow old-fashioned and out of date.

I don’t see it, at least so far as it concerns an emotional political battle like the one we face in the coming months. No matter who you back in a presidential election, almost half of the general public will disagree with you.

Find a winning cause
If you put a sign out front of your sewer and drain cleaning business in support of one candidate, surely some of your customers who disagree will be less inclined to hire you. Are you willing to take a chance at losing even a fraction of those customers who support the other side? And how would you feel if another small business you patronize has signs out front supporting the candidate you oppose? Would you want to take your business elsewhere?

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Perhaps Branson wasn’t talking party politics as much as encouraging business owners to find an altruistic cause to get behind. That’s another story entirely. It’s usually a winning proposition for business owners to become engaged in the community and raise awareness about an issue near and dear to their hearts.

Urge customers to support programs combating a debilitating illness, bringing an end to domestic violence, or helping youth in the community? Of course. Include these efforts in your advertising. Donate a percentage of your revenue to one of these worthy causes. I’ve seen many cleaners raise awareness for important causes, and a byproduct of the effort is the goodwill generated by customers and the public.

The key is to use common sense in whatever or whomever you choose to support, whether you’re doing so through the business or as an individual. Carefully guard your image and reputation as a business owner. It’s one of the most important things you have and it can be tarnished quickly, at least in the eyes of some potential customers.

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It’s your choice
Maybe you see your neighbors staking candidate signs on their lawn, speaking out about an election on their Facebook pages, or even knocking on doors to support their favorite politician. In this emotionally charged campaign season, you might wish you could bring your voice to the debate.

You can certainly do that; it’s your right to speak out in a democracy. But first, be sure to consider the consequences to your business. And realize that, fair or not, small-business owners are sometimes held to a different standard when it comes to speaking their mind.

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