Pick a Side

Jan. 12, 2021

Before you get involved in politics, decide what your politics are.

Someone once proposed these rules for intervening in another nation’s civil war:

1. Don’t.
2. If you must, pick a side.
3. Make sure it’s the right side.

I don’t pretend to any expertise in foreign policy. But to me, these rules apply perfectly to companies, especially consumer product companies, intervening in political controversies.

That subject has been getting a lot of attention lately, due to events in our nation’s capital that hardly need elucidating here. A spate of companies have rushed to announce that they will refuse to furnish any further political contributions to Republican senators and congress members who held up the certification of the 2020 presidential election results with pointless objections. Hallmark even asked two senators who led the movement for its money back.

Well. I believe that, with certain exceptions, the primary gauge of a company’s policies and actions should be whether they create value for shareholders. I have a hard time seeing how stepping into political controversies accomplishes that. By definition, a controversy involves substantial groups of people who passionately disagree about something. Get involved, and you’re sure to alienate at least one of them.

But if a company’s policymakers decide that an issue is just too big, or too something, to be ignored, then they should make up their minds what they want to say. That means, 99 times out of 100, taking a side.

Regrettably often, corporations try to speak out on political controversies without offending anyone. This can go one of two ways. Either we see warm, fuzzy appeals to “unity” because “we’re all in this together,” or, if that’s not possible – if passions are running too high and things have gotten too ugly – we get the “plague on both your houses” approach.

Coca-Cola is an example of the latter. In the wake of the Capitol riot, Coca-Cola announced that it will suspend all political contributions to all candidates. Ben & Jerry’s denounced the attack in explicitly racial terms, calling it “a riot to uphold white supremacy,” and declaring that it would not contribute to any Republican lawmakers who tried to overturn the election. Other CPG companies followed suit. Coca-Cola undoubtedly sees its approach as an improvement.

It isn’t. If Coca-Cola, or any other company, had refused to make political contributions in the first place – if they had followed Rule No. 1 above, in other words – that would be one thing. But ostentatiously cutting off political contributions to everyone, no matter which side they were on, sends one and only one message: “We’re scared to tell you what we really think about this.”

Politics ain’t for sissies. If you’re afraid your political views might alienate people, confine yourself to selling whatever it is that got you into a position to contribute to politicians in the first place.

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