There is a long-standing maxim that goes something like this: “When in the company of strangers, one should never talk about sex, religion or politics.” It serves as both a guide to social etiquette, and as an implicit warning that you might not like the results if you fail to heed it. Given my work in PR, I do my best to adhere to it and I counsel my clients to follow it as well. My friends will occasionally debate with me about freedom of speech and expression and so forth – how they should be able to speak their mind wherever and whenever they want, so long as they make it clear they are espousing their own personal opinion.
In theory that’s fine. Reality is different. While it is true we live in a society where you can say pretty much anything and get away with it under the rubric of “free speech,” just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Today’s communication technology has fairly well erased the distinctions between public and private comments and attitudes. Want an example? Consider the Facebook post of a U.S. Secret Service agent who recently supported one presidential candidate and said she wouldn’t take a bullet for the other candidate who won. She has been suspended from her post. Regardless of the outcome of a pending investigation, her future with the USSS has capped out. I have many friends who still work in government who have been burning up their “personal” social media accounts to decry/protest/lambaste some of the recent policy announcements by the new administration. That’s fine. That’s awesome. That’s within your right. But bear in mind Newton’s Third Law of physics, “Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.” And I firmly believe that physics law applies to karma as well. Be careful what you put out there because it might come back to bite you later. These days one never knows who is listening or watching and how your commentary may be received by a future employer, a potential investor, a prospective business partner, or even the government. Want bigger examples? Consider the minefields Google and Amazon will have to navigate the next few years. CEOs are tied to their companies. What they do and what they say impacts the company brand.
In yesterday’s Term Sheet, the author took the following position:
Startups and their investors are feeling overwhelmed by the pace of the [new] administration’s dramatic changes. Companies are realizing that when a dramatic piece of news hits, they only have a few hours to respond. Not responding is the same as support.
I disagree. Strongly. Not responding doesn’t mean implied support. It means not responding. There is a huge difference between a piece of dramatic news hitting that directly affects your company, in which case it is certainly compelled to respond in a timely and thoughtful manner; and a piece of dramatic news that doesn’t affect your company, in which case conventional wisdom says to keep your mouth shut and focus on the X’s and O’s, the 1’s and 0’s, the debits and credits. This isn’t to say I don’t support corporate social responsibility. On the contrary, I am a firm believer in the triple bottom line of profit, people and planet. But CSR has been successfully ingrained into corporate culture and embraced for nearly a quarter of a century. It doesn’t demand one take stands on sex, religion or politics.
Some may consider me “old school” for my view. So be it. I grew up in a different era and I acknowledge Millennials are more actively engaged in politics, etc., but frankly, I don’t care what Jeff Bezos thinks about immigration restrictions – I just want my damn Prime package delivered in two days and not three, okay? And when CEOs appear to devote more time to extraneous issues than the business, that’s not good for the company. Point: While Amazon’s CEO was actively lobbying for his candidate last year the company missed its target and shares tumbled. Are the two connected? I don’t know. But the appearance says maybe so. From an investor’s point of view, that’s important.
Business is business. We’d all be better off remembering that.