The Business of Politics and Religion: Is it Taboo?

There's an old adage that states one should never discuss religion, politics, or money in polite company. But does it -- and should it -- still hold true in today’s social business environment?

Is combining business, religion, and politics still taboo? Or, in some cases, could make sense to combine them?

We have a pretty well defined, if not always cleanly executed, division of Church and State in the political and educational fields. We’ve accepted as a society that these public institutions are built upon a non-denominational, spirituality-neutral foundation. And we tend to resist strongly when political motivations intrude upon our educational experiences.

But what about private institutions? What role do religion and politics play in the business world?

An article that appeared in an August edition of The Economist suggested that businesses should “speak low if you speak of God.” I tend to disagree.

While the SEO Gurus (wizards, shamans, chiefs, etc.) will espouse all day long about the need to be open and transparent, the content of their ellipsis is the phrase “as long as your opinion is popular.”

To me that reduces religion and politics to crass commercialism. Essentially your SEO Shaman is telling you that if you can monetize your beliefs, then exploit away.

Instead, I think you have to look at your business and determine for yourself whether public expressions of faith -- whether they be religious or political -- should be foundational or taboo.

Today’s customers demand unprecedented levels of honesty and transparency from the businesses with whom they interact. We generally appreciate cultural identifiers in our day-to-day interactions, especially in our cultural or culinary experiences, as we tend to infer a sense of authenticity from them.

There are also those who argue that expressions of religious or political beliefs can damage your brand. They will point to the Chick-fil-A controversy from this past summer where the chain’s owner expressed his personal disapproval of gay marriage.

What’s often left out of that debate is that while many chose to boycott the restaurant, a significant number of people chose to support the chain – expressly because of that expression of a political, ideological, and religious belief.

We have The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. That document lists as its first fundamental freedom the “freedom of conscience and religion.” That’s followed closely by the “freedom of thought, belief, opinion, and expression…” Essentially, you have the freedom to choose when and how you express those beliefs.

And you have the freedom to reap the benefits or suffer the consequences of those decisions.

There are no hard and fast rules that you can apply, as a business owner, in making the decision to tie your brand to a belief – whether it’s religious or political. There are only questions – and the answers to those questions can help identify your motivation and guide you to the decision that best fits your need.

  • Why? – This is the biggie. Why are you tying your brand to a belief? Are those religious or political fundamentals core to your product and services offerings, or is this simply a matter of having a forum and choosing to exploit it.
  • What are the risks? – Business is business; personal is personal. By choosing to align the two, essentially making business personal, you’re making the conscious decision to risk public backlash. Some customers may choose not to patronize your establishment or buy your products because they see their purchase decision as a tacit support of a cause.
  • What are the benefits? – You can turn that above statement around. By publicly flying a flag, you may galvanize support amongst people who share your philosophies or beliefs. This is particularly true in terms of cultural and religious representation. Kosher/Halal restaurants and markets often publicly declare their affiliations as they are targeting members of the Jewish and Islamic faiths.
  • Will you alienate anyone? – Generally, people can separate their company’s beliefs from their own, but you do run the risk of alienating certain employees. Few people want to be lumped into a group with which they’re diametrically opposed philosophically. The same goes for customers, who may choose not to patronize an establishment affiliated with a group or belief with which they don’t agree.

There’s one other question that must be answered as it can be one of the greatest influencers of how people perceive you: What channels are you using?

There’s a big difference between crafting vision and mission statements that outline corporate philosophies (e.g., to build a sustainable business rooted in [insert religion here] values) and allowing an employee to make comments on a corporate Twitter feed. In an attempt to gain traction in the on-line market, some community managers or communicators will use corporate Twitter accounts or Facebook pages to make political or social commentary.

It can be as overt as a statement or as subtle as a ‘liked’ page, but it’s a discussion companies must have with their social teams. Are you willing to wade into these waters, or do you establish firm guidelines as to what is and isn’t on the table for commentary?

How can a Tweet impact your business? Through loss of credibility and creating a new frame of reference. Your business can, very quickly, become aligned with a point of view or 'side' that may not be representative of your corporate ideals through Tweets, retweets, and posts. No matter what disclaimer you make, to the average reader your social media posts represent your business – the implied separation between poster and post doesn’t translate.

So what’s right for your business? Only you can decide. And it’s a decision that can only be reached by asking – and answering – the questions that I’ve outlined above. After all, when you’re talking about making business personal, the decision can only come from you.

And now over to you! Do you mix religion or politics in your business? If so, what prompted that decision? If not, was it a conscious decision? Comments are open.

Questions Answered

Should I talk about religion in my business?

Should I discuss politics in my business?

Should I use my business Twitter feed for personal opinions?

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