From national fast-food chain Chick-fil-A to the famed Geno’s Steaks in Philadelphia, businesses are making headlines for taking a stand on hot topics like gay marriage and the 2012 election. While huge franchises have pockets deep enough to go out on a limb and speak their mind, small businesses may be taking a big risk in the name of the First Amendment when doing the same.
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Cliff Courtney, EVP of Zimmerman Advertising, said he advises businesses of all sizes to simply avoid religion and politics because they evoke such strong emotions from people across the board. Small businesses in particular should steer clear of such issues like gay marriage, unless it has something directly to do with their mission and brand.
“I don’t think small businesses should play with religion or politics, because you are bound to upset people in a way that is not core to your business,” Courtney said. “Don’t polarize people. You can say ‘We believe in fresh ingredients’ or ‘We believe in the First Amendment,’ and believe in a lot of things that are meaningful without rocking people to their core.”
Small businesses also have to remember their employees when speaking out in the way Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathy did on gay marriage.
“People’s jobs are literally on the line,” Courtney said. “Politics and religion can really polarize people.”
Steve Siebold, author of “Sex, Politics and Religion: How Delusional Thinking is Destroying America,” said speaking out on an issue like gay marriage isn’t smart because it is directly tied to discrimination. As a business owner, you never want any race, sex or class to feel unwelcome.
“You start to look and think, ‘are gay people not welcome in Chick-fil-A?’” he said. “And that is the problem. Now they [the businesses] are directly tied to this hot-button issue.”
As for small businesses like Geno’s Steaks speaking out on President Obama’s much maligned “You didn’t build that,” speech, Siebold said this may not be a bad idea. Instead of outright endorsing one candidate over another, taking credit for building your own business can help bolster the support of customers and the community.
“It’s an emotional rallying cry for small businesses,” he said. “It may work going forward.”
Courtney said taking sides on controversial issues can sometimes work as a branding tactic for small businesses, in order to drum up press. However, the outcome is never guaranteed.
“Brands can use a strong point of view to differentiate,” he said. “Small brands need to fight harder to stand out.”
Siebold said that the notion that any press is good press may not ring true in this case.
“If you’re not in the business of opinions, then don’t give them out,” he said.