Can brands still be apolitical?

It is generally considered good etiquette to avoid the subject of politics in polite company.

Debrett’s – the authority on such matters – states:

“If you’re in an environment where a stand-up, passionate political row is not desirable… then it is probably a good idea to lay off politics altogether…”

Given stand up rows aren’t necessarily good for business either, most companies have also tended to steer clear of politics. But in 2017, that is becoming increasingly difficult to do. Politics has become more divisive, intrusive, controversial – and a more fundamental part of our lives than at any point in most of our lifetimes.

And now there is a General Election on the horizon to add extra spice.

Brands are under greater scrutiny than ever before and the reality is that remaining staunchly apolitical is no longer as easy as it once was. Brands are getting drawn into divisive debates whether they like it or not.

Just look at the example of sportswear brand New Balance, which last year had to distance itself from “bigotry or hate in any form” after expressing an opinion on one small aspect of Donald Trump’s proposed trade policies.

From a PR perspective, if you have to distance yourself from bigotry and hatred, you’ve not had the best week.

With Article 50 now triggered and the march towards Brexit underway here in the UK, brands will also be aware their every move and every word may be similarly seized upon.

In any given year, many brands have to announce news related to everything from hiring, firing and job cuts to exchange rates, overseas investment, supply chain issues and acquisitions. In the past, many businesses might have struggled to get anybody interested in such news. But now and for the foreseeable future, all such announcements may be seized upon and forced into an on-going narrative around Brexit – with undue prominence and distortions beyond their control. If they don’t mention Brexit, it will be woven into the commentary for them. If they do, they run the risk of being accused of anything and everything up to and including high treason.

Companies explaining that Brexit will make goods more expensive and conditions less favourable in the UK have already been accused of trying to blackmail the government into tax breaks, or using Brexit as a scapegoat for either their own greed or failure, or both.

Choosing the right words has never been more of a knife edge for businesses to walk, which is why at its heart this is a PR problem exacerbated by the rise of social media and digital activism. How do brands handle the pressure and the insistence that their decisions and announcements are politically aligned or motivated, whether they like it or not? How do brands continue to communicate clearly and honestly without fuelling division or debate that they do not want to be drawn into?

Golin has joined up with the PRCA to stage a debate on this very subject on 27 April. Tickets are FREE and can be booked here: https://www.prca.org.uk/event/1431/prca-corporate-group-event%3A-an-end-to-impartiality—why-businesses-can-no-longer-be-apolitical