At this time of year, I’m always struck by how individuals – and businesses – often carefully tiptoe around their phrasing and messages. A coffee shop might play only non-religious Christmas carols, and clerks might wish you “Happy Holidays” instead of a “Merry Christmas” in an effort to avoid offending those who may not celebrate the Christmas holiday. But while it’s magnified in this season, the issue of political correctness doesn’t only apply right now; it extends throughout the year and crops up frequently for businesses.
Smart entrepreneurs are wise to give this consideration. After all, the societal landscape has changed in recent years. Whereas a flippant (or even well-intentioned) comment may have gone without notice in decades past, today’s consumers are quick to complain or even pursue legal action if they don’t like something they hear or read. And with social media, expressing outrage or claiming discrimination is only a few keyboard clicks away.
And let’s be honest about this for a second. Sometimes the objections are justified, but other times they’re the result of a delicate culture that’s become accustomed to crying foul. So what do you do in your business, especially in public-facing communications? Stand your ground and say what you feel? Or kowtow to the vocal few, while trying to please everyone? As with most things, the answer lies somewhere in the middle.
Here are a few questions to consider when tackling this issue in your own business.
1. What’s your business founded upon?
This is important. If your company was built to be a faith-based counseling service, for example, it’s completely acceptable to put out religiously-geared blog posts, newsletters and other materials. In fact, failing to weave this important component of your organization into your PR efforts is a disservice to your brand.
But what if you and your co-founder are passionate about your beliefs, but your business is about something entirely separate – like software? In this case, it wouldn’t be appropriate to incorporate your religious sentiments into your communications. You don’t need to hide how you feel as an individual person, but it should not be part of your business’ image unless it’s relevant to your product or service offerings.
2. Who is your customer base?
Next, think about who your current customers and prospects are. Let’s say you created an app that keeps people up-to-date on political events and news, especially the presidential election cycle. If your product has a definite right-leaning slant, then you likely want to reach conservatives. In this scenario, you’re in a niche space with a narrowly defined audience so you can feel free to let your political thoughts fly (with tact, of course).
However, let’s say your product is meant to be fair to both political parties and offer impartial coverage. In this instance, you need to be more careful. Even though you may personally be a Republican, refrain from putting out elephant-biased messages. Why? Because you’re likely to alienate half of your target audience.
I like to think of it this way. Remember those musicians (ahem, Madonna!) who spend a significant portion of their concerts lambasting political parties with which they disagree or spewing their own political beliefs? Whether I agree with them or not, I would not attend any of their concerts…. Simply because I would have paid to hear music and be entertained – not be force-fed someone else’s political ideas. So think about what your consumers are paying for: Is it a product or service, or is it insight into your personal beliefs about the world? Sometimes it is the latter, in which case you should absolutely be vocal. But if it’s the former, keep the personal convictions to your personal time.
3. What’s the benefit?
Ultimately, you must think about the advantages of anything you write or say that might be construed as crossing the line. And one important note to interject here: There is never a time or place to be mean-spirited toward any group of human beings. This guideline isn’t just about political correctness; it’s about human decency. But when it comes to sharing your views on heated topics, consider what you’ll gain by doing so. As long as you’re not spreading harmful or malicious messages, maybe communicating your thoughts is in fact worth the risk of offending certain folks. That’s fine! Just be prepared to have some naysayers, and be at the ready to (graciously and kindly) respond to their concerns. But if the potential upset isn’t commensurate to – or greater than – the rewards, just don’t do it.
So when it comes to political correctness, the best rule of thumb is to maintain common sense. Sure, it’s good to be fairly PC in your PR efforts, but going overboard either way can be damaging. Stand for something and be true to yourself and your brand. But also be conscientious about the people your words may affect. And, for goodness’ sake, yes – feel free to wish anyone and everyone a “Merry Christmas!”
So from me and mine to you and yours, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!