Mixing politics and social media - only in America?

Conventional wisdom says that corporate communications and political controversy do not mix. Big corporations have always been political, but usually prefer to work behind the scenes, lobbying politicians, funding campaigns or quietly trying to influence public opinion on issues directly relevant to their business.

Something seems to be changing in the US though, where a number of household corporate names have been staking out public positions on divisive political issues such as gay marriage, immigration reform and whether to display the Confederate flag.

The trend is well summarised and analysed here and here.

This is of particular interest to digital managers because online channels are playing a big role in getting the message out. Tim Cook, CEO of Apple tweeted his support in June for the US Supreme Court’s decision legalising gay marriage. Retail giant Target tweeted from its official account, ‘Here’s to having, holding and marrying who you love’. Macy’s, AT&T, American Airlines and several others followed suit. In June, Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce.com, used Twitter to call on the state of South Carolina to remove the Confederate flag from its capitol building. A number of other high-profile CEOs did the same.

I did a quick search on a handful of corporate websites of companies that have been vocal on social media – Apple, Target, Microsoft, Wal-Mart Stores and Boeing. There was little or nothing on these issues on the main sites, and the phenomenon appears to be limited to blogs and microsites. Here is Microsoft’s blog on a gay marriage bill in Washington state in 2012. Target discusses same-sex marriage in several entries on its executive blog, including this. Caterpillar mentions immigration (albeit in a very dry way) here and Verizon (much more entertainly) on net neutrality. Boeing has a section on diversity policies for gay, lesbian and transgender employees but we could not find anything on the politics.

What is behind companies’ newfound willingness to take clear positions in America’s culture wars? Partly it is because the battles (for public opinion at least) have already been won. On gay marriage, the Confederate flag, and immigration reform, there is concentrated and vocal opposition, but broad public support. The definition of ‘stakeholder’ is changing for businesses, and they are particularly conscious of presenting a progressive, forward-thinking image to current and future employees. The freedom and expectations for social media and blogs are also driving the trend. If you are company tweeting, posting and blogging, boring corporate-speak will not do; there is an expectation to be clear and interesting.

There may be a cultural angle at work too – it is more acceptable in the US, as opposed to say, Europe, to wear your politics on your sleeve. Americans routinely drop political opinions into conversations with relative strangers, where in other countries your politics stay between you and the walls of the polling booth.

- Jason Sumner