Navigating the challenges of being a “thought leader” in politically-charged times
One of the more consequential PR firestorms in the business world came last October when Daryl Morey, general manager for the Houston Rockets, expressed support for Hong Kong protestors. This digital thumbs up to protesters came on the tails of a Hong Kong Legislative Council bill that would have allowed for its citizens to be extradited to China for trial.
Morey’s tweet set off a chain reaction that included vocal opposition from China, whose citizens invest billions of dollars into the NBA brand and its subsidiaries. The fallout continued in the United States, as the NBA and Tilman Fertitta (the Rockets’ owner) quickly distanced themselves from Morey, saying he didn’t speak for them as a team or organization. However, it also led to an outpouring of support from those that sympathized with the protestors’ cause.
The business world often holds executives and founders up as thought leaders. And in many cases, rightly so. But entrepreneurs should be mindful of their core competency. They are often experts in a given field, but may not understand the intricacies of policies and identity politics. It is tempting for entrepreneurs to use their platforms to advance their ideas. But founders should recognize two deadly temptations: scope creep and vanity.
Haphazardly wading into political controversy is as much a distraction to your business as other forms of scope creep. For the business woman or man, a careful evaluation of the costs and benefits of speaking into political issues should always precede a public stance. Honestly assessing your role as a leader–with something to gain (or lose) from broadcasting your position on a controversial topic–will help you discern whether entering the fray is a wise decision for you and your enterprise.
Here are several ways to prepare your business, and yourself, for the fierce political season ahead.
Run a risk analysis
With politics in the air during an election year, it seems increasingly difficult to follow that old school wisdom of not mixing politics, religion, and business. While an entrepreneur needs a grasp on what’s happening in the political realm, entering the political fray can be a major time drain and potential PR disaster.
Yes, some companies, like Nike, are embracing woke capitalism and don’t seem to be suffering much for it. The American economy is vast and in some cases alienating one part of the consumer base in order to secure a different market segment may actually be a strategic business move. But this won’t be universally true for all companies. Decision makers must understand their consumer base and whether there’s any gain to ruffling feathers.
Become a conscious news consumer
The news cycle is non-stop, and things like tariffs, trade wars, multinational corporations, and changing labor laws make keeping up with what’s happening even more imperative. Entrepreneurs should prioritize useful news over clickbait. This requires a leveraged approach to news and data consumption. Corporate decision makers often don’t have the bandwidth or interest to keep up with Twitter headlines all day long; but they need to maintain an understanding of trends and emerging issues.
The first step to a leveraged approach is to move beyond the front page of Washington politics and celebrity news and spend more time on the pages that cover macro and micro economic trends. You will find yourself better prepared to make informed decisions by devoting a solid thirty minutes each morning to the business, markets, and tech sections of your preferred outlet than you will by following the latest celebrity breakup or the most recent ginned up political drama.
When you do read about politics, focus on news about regulatory changes or revisions to the tax code that could impact your business and industry.
Accomplishing this will require a deliberate, strategic consumption of data and news. Because understanding economic and policy trends is important to one’s business forecasting and decision-making, consciously choosing a few outlets that you can get the most knowledge payout for your investment of time is essential. To ensure you’ve chosen a credible outlet, you’ll want to read beyond the headlines, look for supporting sources that back up the author’s claims, and check the date to confirm it includes the most up-to-date information.
Stay informed, but maintain focus
A founder of a small company usually doesn’t have the resources, budget, or bandwidth to become politically involved like the CEO of a Fortune 100 corporation. For years, Silicon Valley seemed to be left to their own devices without a lot of political engagement. But now we can see that larger companies like Facebook, Google, and Amazon are upping their political engagement, spending relatively small fortunes on lobbyists, as governments around the world start to place more policy pressure on their operations. (When more regulation is on the horizon, it’s unsurprising that companies will increase their lobbying efforts).
A budding entrepreneur might see the examples of these larger companies and think that they too should be engaged in policy. But small to mid-sized companies are often at the mercy of the environment created by the larger corporations, and don’t have the ability to hire huge teams of lobbyists for state, local, or federal action.
Smaller companies are more prone to regulation and the effects of crony regulatory capture by bigger companies, which makes it imperative for their leaders to be aware of the political winds and proposed regulations. In some instances, smaller companies may participate in trade groups that will give them a voice on matters that affect their industry. But in many cases, they will simply have to learn how to navigate through a world not of its own making.
By staying informed about the real trends occurring within an industry and the broader market, entrepreneurs can keep their companies well-prepared to navigate the local and global economies. Consciously opting out of controversies that detract from your business’ mission while recognizing there may be a time when political engagement is called for, is the type of leadership that will enable business owners and decision makers to be ready to respond (or not) when the next political controversy hits the news cycle.