Wondering whether your business should come out with political opinions or stay carefully neutral? Here's some research--and some advice--that might help

This past winter the restaurant Cup it Up in Tucson closed permanently because of a Facebook post. Two of the business's owners listed the things they supported "100 percent," including President Donald Trump and standing for the national anthem, and a second list of things they didn't support, including "the concept of global warming." Response was so immediate and negative that they took the post down within three hours. Nonetheless, Cup It Up received not only boycott threats but also threats of violence. Many employees quit in alarm. The owners closed for good three days later, posting a statement in the window that staying open wasn't worth the risk.

A year earlier, the CEO of Wisconsin-based Penzey's Spices had sent an email to all of his company's customers decrying the election of Trump and calling the new president a racist--along with a promotion for some of his spices. (He also gave away free Mexican vanilla as a reaction to Trump's comments on Mexico.) In his case the reaction was good for business. He later wrote that other companies should consider doing the same, adding: "Don't be surprised to see your promotions suddenly, finally, find active engagement with the Millennial generation." 

It's hard to figure out what lesson to draw from these two tales and easy to wonder whether a business that expresses political opinions is giving itself a leg up or shooting itself in the kneecap. But there's some data from a Sprout Social survey of 1,000 consumers that may help. Two-thirds of respondents said they wanted companies to take a stand on political issues, and 58 percent wanted them to do so on social media. Interestingly, the desire for brands to speak out on political matters split somewhat along political lines. More than three quarters of respondents who identified themselves as liberals said they wanted companies to take a stand while only 52 percent of self-identified conservatives thought they should. And 82 percent of liberals thought companies were credible when the expressed political opinions while only 46 percent of conservatives did.

Do companies have more to gain or more to lose by taking a political stand? It's debatable. Twenty-eight percent of respondents said they'd publicly praise a company if they agreed with its opinions while only 20 percent said they'd publicly criticize one they disagreed with. On the other hand, only 44 percent said they'd buy more from a company they agreed with while 53 percent would buy less from a company whose views they didn't share. And 33 percent said they'd actually boycott such a company. In other words, as Cup It Up and Penzeys Spices learned, there are both potential risks and potential benefits to taking a public political stand. 

So what should you do? Here's some expert advice:

1. Saying something may be better than saying nothing.

Speaking out politically comes with more risk for a small company than a large one, argues business coach Joel Klein. Because they don't have the financial, legal, or public relations resources of larger companies, "one risky statement can be the end for them," he says. On the other hand, the Sprout Social survey makes it clear most customers do want companies to take a political stand, at least sometimes. The best approach is to make thoughtful choices about when to speak up and when not to. A little bit of political speech can go a long way.

2. Start by listening.

You may be tempted to come out with a statement that will let people know who you are and what you stand for. Before you do, listen to what your customers, employees, and the members of your community have to say, advises Andrew Caravella, vice president of Strategy and Brand Engagement at Sprout Social. Monitor social media where these constituents are discussing the issues that matter most to them. That may help you decide which issue or issues to speak up about, and help prepare you if your stance will be controversial or unpopular.

3. Think topics, not parties.

Even if you identify as a Democrat or Republican, or Conservative or Liberal, chances are you don't agree with every position your party of choice takes. So why restrict yourself to the opinions of a single group? "Instead of latching your business onto one political party, choose to speak on particular topics instead," Klein says.

4. Pick issues that matter to your constituents.

Are tax cuts helping your business? Are immigration policies hurting it? Will planned redevelopment in your area make it easier or harder to work there? Is growing crime making your employees feel unsafe when they head home at the end of the day? All these things are issues that directly affect your business or its community, and they're the best issues to take a stand on. 

Not surprisingly, the Sprout Social research found you're likeliest to be taken seriously when the issue you're addressing hits close to home. Almost half the respondents said they'd believe a brand's political stance about issues that affect its customers, while 40 percent said they'd believe it if the issue affected employees and 31 percent said they'd believe it if the issue affected the business itself.

5. Plan how you'll deal with reactions.

People may loudly disagree or agree with what you've said. And they probably will. "Given the reach and speed of social platforms, having a strategy in place to respond to both supportive and critical responses is crucial," Caravella says. Otherwise, he warns, you may struggle to explain yourself as your views come under scrutiny. It's probably smart to do some homework and be ready with some information from credible sources to back up what you've said.

6. Be genuine.

You're better off saying nothing than saying something you don't fully believe. So be sincere and genuine. Remember that what you say--and do--today may be remembered for a long time to come. "For local businesses in particular, taking a stand on issues facing the city or region you serve is an opportunity to grow deeper roots and a reputation as a leader within the community," Caravella says. "Businesses that are committed to speaking out based on their values--and that have a track record of acting accordingly--will be able to take a stronger, more credible stance that has greater potential to resonate with their audience." And that can be very good for the bottom line.