Can Companies Really Talk Politics at the Dinner Table?
COMMENTARY

May 14, 2021by Ron Bonjean and Steve Rochlin, ROKK Solutions
(Photo by Lionel Bonaventure/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)

With American adults spending over 2 hours per day on social media sites, businesses are no longer just anonymous entities that supply goods and services.  They are influencing people on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, participating in conversations with clear personalities while expressing opinions. The most successful engagements make customers feel like there is an authentic human voice speaking with them.

Increasingly, these engagements include expressions of social, and even, political values. In fairness, American companies have always had an interest in politics. The public-private relationship was integral to business in the United States long before there was a United States (something about tea and taxes…). The difference is that now, businesses are increasingly public about their interests, especially when it comes to social good. In many cases, this approach has become a part of organizational identity – just like humans.  

At the same time, many corporations have felt the sting of getting it wrong – everything from speaking up too late to not speaking up at all to speaking up too soon, too loud, or with an unpopular opinion.

For many C-suite executives, it can feel like there is no winning. And in that feeling lies the hard truth about this “business-as-human” world we live in: We are in a new phase of political and activist communications in America. Businesses are increasingly expected to engage in the political arena at some level and that means that there will likely be criticism coming from potential detractors.

So how do businesses survive- and thrive- when considering a forward-leaning position in politics, policy or on a social issue? 

The key is to have a rigorous strategic evaluation process. At ROKK Solutions, our Social Impact Communications practice has a framework for guiding the process and the go-to-market strategy of developing a voice in this space. A few of the best practices we’ve seen along the way are:

  1. Find your zone: Your business needs to align at the highest level on what it stands for, and what it supports and why. And then, you need to carefully listen to your customer base through polling and social listening activities. The point where what your business supports overlaps with what your customers care about is the zone you want to play in.  Take a position outside of this space, and it will feel like an overreach, which may cause some backlash – both from consumers and also from internal stakeholders (like shareholders). To avoid internal backlash, engage internal stakeholders in the process of message development, so they are aligned on the position and supportive of the messaging that will be out in the marketplace.
  2. Prepare for every possibility: Even once you find the right zone to be in, you may not get it right, especially when you are first engaging.  Your timing could be off, you could end up alienating a small but vocal group of consumers, you may flub the messaging. Know what could go wrong, and be prepared with a plan for every scenario, in every channel. Don’t get so focused on social media that you forget other channels where conversations- or criticism- may be happening. And don’t give up. Be prepared to learn and iterate until you get it right.
  3. Toughen up: Haters will hate. Trolls will troll. There’s a level of negativity that you can expect, but it is important to view it with an eye to what creates common good and what ultimately detracts from it. Monitor and be sensitive to the comments – good and bad – and  have a plan for action if it becomes necessary. Prepare your internal stakeholders so they are prepared as well. If you’ve been authentic to your brand, be willing to stick with your position. 

The bottom line is that there’s no flying by the seat of your pants when it comes to this new world. So before your organization declares its position on a hot topic, and before your social media team plans a campaign around a trending social issue, do the work to establish an authentic voice, and be prepared within the organization for the journey that follows.


Ron Bonjean is the co-founder of the bipartisan public affairs firm ROKK Solutions.  He is the first person to have served as the lead spokesman for both the House and the Senate, and was the communications strategist for Supreme Court nominee Judge Neil Gorsuch.

Steve Rochlin is a Senior Advisor for Social Impact to ROKK Solutions. He has over 20 years of experience in sustainability and corporate responsibility, advising a wide variety of industry leaders on how to improve sustainability performance in a way that drives competitive success.

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