In today’s highly politicalized world, should brands and thought leaders take a stance on social issues? Or is it reputation and business suicide? Companies like Uber, Starbucks, Google and Nordstrom continue to enter the fray. Sometimes the brand reputation has benefited; some have suffered. Marketing and PR pros are looking for patterns to emerge, but unfortunately, there is no right or wrong answer.

Many of us grew up learning that, in polite conversation, you should veer away from three topics: sports, religion and politics. The thinking is because people have strong convictions about these topics, you must avoid them to avoid conflict. But isn’t the fact that we have strong convictions – the fact that these topics are so important to us – the same reason why we should talk about them? Maybe.

We’ve also long heard that politics has no place in business. Over the years, our agency has counseled many business leaders on whether and how they might be positioned on issues that matter to their companies. Social and political trends drive the big scale market changes, global economics and changing regulations that have huge impacts on businesses and organizations. So how can they avoid having a strategy and thoughts on these issues?

Speaking out on social and political issues can be a risky path. But it can be a risk worth taking.

Here are some guiding principles to consider for brand reputation:

No matter what, be true to your (organization’s) self.

Stand by your values and your message. For example, if you are a thought leader known for your ideas on leadership, it may be relevant for you to share your perspective on whether a business leader can translate corporate experience to a political office. But if you are an expert on IT software, your audience may not understand or appreciate why you suddenly start blogging about gun rights.

Consider your purpose.

Why do you want to speak out? Is the issue impacting employees and they need you to be a voice for them? Does the topic resonate with customers and relate to why they work with you? Does it connect to your organization’s mission? Those are all good reasons to take a stance. You need to ask: Is this a fight you want to battle? Are you adding value to the debate or just letting off steam?

Don’t be negative.

I’ve long been the black sheep in my family when it comes to politics, often on the other side of where my parents and other relatives stand. It’s been a hard lesson, but we’ve learned to share our beliefs with respect and love. Businesses and thought leaders who speak out on an issue most effectively do it with positive intentions, to add perspective, share new value, or offer an authentic and personal response to something going on in the world.

Know your risk.

If you are considering taking a moral stance as a pure sales tactic, think twice. Companies seen as looking to capitalize on political trends can suffer. By speaking out on controversial issues, you will get more attention. That may be a good thing. But understand that same spotlight also means more scrutiny. Prepare to follow through; back it up and walk the talk. 

If you are considering taking a moral stance as a pure sales tactic, think twiceClick To Tweet

This study says 81 percent of Americans believe corporations should take action to address important issues facing society, and 88 percent believe corporations have the power to influence social change. Ultimately, you should take a stance if the issue is close to your heart and makes sense for your business. You may alienate some, but if speaking up brings you closer to your mission, that should be okay in the long term. Ultimately, being aligned and vocal on a social issue can help you define and strengthen your true self and connect more deeply with your core audience.

If you are unsure where your brand reputation should stand in today’s political climate, consider engaging outside experts who can provide objectivity and perspective.

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With a keen ability to take vision and translate it into tactical action, Nicole has been helping the firm's clients realize their dreams for more than 18 years. As senior advisor, she is relied upon for her direct counsel, out-of-the-box thinking and creative programming. Her greatest joy is seeing others – clients, colleagues and peers alike – get to that aha moment, and she isn't afraid to take risks, ask the tough questions (maybe it comes from her years as a journalist) and experiment to get them there. Outside of the office she likes to keep it simple: relaxing by the beach with a good book and then cooking dinner for friends.