In case you've been living in a survival bunker, I'll recap the Red Hen brouhaha. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders went to dine at the Lexington, Virginia farm-to-table restaurant The Red Hen on Friday, June 22, but after a few minutes, the owner asked Sanders and her party to leave as an act of political protest.
Since then, The Red Hen has been experiencing the double-edged sword of Internet notoriety in this politically volatile age. It's famous coast to coast, but the owner has been doxxed and people have been flooding Yelp with one-star reviews and threatening boycotts.
Since literally everyone is talking about this story from a political perspective, I'm going to ignore the politics and focus on the risk-reward. Is it worth it for a business to take a controversial moral/ethical stand at the risk of alienating potential customers or becoming the target of online and offline harassment? If so, when?
You don't start a company or run a business in a vacuum, and you don't stop being a person when you become an entrepreneur. What's the point of taking the risks and making the sacrifices needed to create something if you can't use that platform to reflect who you really are and what you care about?
That said, any small business is fragile, startups even more so. Taking a brave ethical stand might feel great, but it's a Pyrrhic victory if your gesture drives away so many of your customers that you go under. So if you're going to create a Red Hen moment of your own, do so for a good reason that supports your brand. In other words, court controversy intentionally, not accidentally.
Here are the three occasions when taking a moral or ethical stand is work the risk, from least to most important:
A lot of your customers let you know they're upset. If four or five customers email you, you don't need to bring business to a halt to address the issue. But if you're getting a regular flow of emails, tweets, and Facebook comments expressing concern or even outrage, it's a problem. Do your research, engage your customer base to learn what they're thinking, and take decisive action before the issue costs you business.
Your employees are united and agitated. Why is this more critical than angry customers? Because your people are your business, and if as a group they feel strongly about an issue, your culture can collapse. You could have a totally different view on the subject from your staff, but that's unlikely; people with similar values tend to flock together. So pay attention, listen to your employees and take meaningful action that involves them.
Your position contradicts your brand. If you've built a brand around environmentalism (for example), but you're partnering with companies that are horrible polluters, you risk being seen as a hypocrite--and consumers and the press love to crush hypocrites. Forget potential blowback; this is a survival situation. Be transparent, be honest, do what's right and let the chips fall where they may. You have no other choice.
One final piece of advice: If you take a stand, go all in. Don't do it halfway. Half measures attract half-hearted defenders, and you need an army of passionate people who love what you stand for to stand up for you. When you're in the right, don't back down and you'll get them.