For many companies, wading into political or social issues is seen as a risky proposition, at best. Giving their two cents--both intellectually or financially--holds too many unknowns. How will customers react? Does the potential controversy raise the company's public profile or simply tarnish it? The answers aren't always clear.
As a founder, I think there is a time to get behind an issue even if it doesn't coincide directly with your business interests. For example, when Chip Bergh--CEO of Levi Strauss--recently asked me and my co-founder, Dave Spector, to sign the letter to the Senate imploring legislative action to address gun violence, we decided to act.
Now, there have been other times in the past when we've been asked to sign a petition or lend our names to a cause, and we've declined. Every company has their own set of values, and it's not a good idea to constantly get involved with social or political issues to the detriment of your business.
But I do believe there's a time and place for businesses to involve themselves in issues outside the narrow realm of their own sales and growth.
When an issue relates to your values as a company and as a human being.
Research continues to show that consumers want to buy from businesses they view as ethical and responsible. People like to do business with companies they feel are aligned with their own values and opinions.
The success of brands like Patagonia, Everlane, and Toms has shown that brands can thrive while pushing social causes. It's opened the door for executives who may previously have been wary about vocalizing their opinion on political or social issues. Of course, the catch is determining which issues to take a stance on.
Personally, as a mom living in the U.S., it's hard not to think about gun violence. I can remember going out into the hallway for tornado drills as a kid, but today, my own kids practice active shooter drills.
Gun violence also has a direct impact on not only our customers but women throughout the country. One in four women in the U.S. have been the victim of domestic violence, and entering a gun into the equation drastically increases the risk of homicide in an already dangerous situation. So when we were given the opportunity to vocalize our frustration and the need for change, our values--both personal and company-wide--dictated that we step up.
No two companies are exactly alike, and you may have a different set of values and priorities. But customers expect more than a product from the companies they do business with today; they expect to see their own principles and values reflected through company practices.
As a leader, you have to prepare your team.
If you feel passionately enough about an issue that you're going to sign a petition, write an article, or speak up about it, then you have to be able to follow through and weather whatever storm--big or small--your stance stirs up.
Even though the topic of universal background checks is much less divisive than it's often positioned, we knew there could be some pushback after signing the petition. Some people disagreed. Others believed it wasn't our place to enter the conversation--some people still don't support the idea that businesses should hold opinions.
If you're thinking about taking a stance on an issue, you have to be able to explain your reasoning to your team. Prep your customer support team, who may be on the receiving end of disgruntled calls or messages. You may be getting some unfriendly posts on Instagram, and they're the ones who have to field calls and complaints.
Finally, be ready to go to the press and explain your decision. You may be asked some uncomfortable or difficult questions related to your stance. Even in a lighthearted interview, things can quickly go south if you haven't prepared for certain questions, so be sure you've done your homework and can answer tricky queries confidently.
In the past, a company's money and influence were almost exclusively funneled towards lobbying for laws and regulations that would give them a competitive advantage in the marketplace. But that's changing. People can, and should, expect more from businesses. So if you're going to take a stance on a fraught political or social issue, be sure it's aligned with your values. And if it is, don't be afraid to confidently share your opinion.