How to Talk Politics -- or Not -- With Clients, Employees and Friends
A number of years ago I wrote a post for Ad Age about taking a client to a Red Sox game. I described a pre-game dinner where we had a spirited discussion about politics, the economy and a couple of hot-button social issues. John leaned to the red and I leaned to the blue. If you judge success by the number of angry comments I received, that was my best post ever. People criticized me for talking politics in the first place, for disagreeing with a client, and finally for being a Red Sox fan. Guilty as charged. John remains a good friend and no harm came to the business relationship.
Wow, do times change.
Today, when it comes to political conversation, it's starting to feel like the civil war out there. It's heated, seldom polite, and seemingly impossible to bridge the chasm between Clinton and Trump.
No longer merely geographic, battle lines are drawn on Facebook. Friends defriend friends, or at least block posts from people with whom they disagree. We feverishly click the "like" button and share content that conforms to our view of the world. The algorithm churns away and feeds us more of the same. Pretty soon we share a homogenous view of the world with people who think just like us.
The closing down of conversation and opposing opinions is not good for agencies that thrive on novel ideas, original thinking and creative expression. We preach authenticity and celebrate openness but increasingly live in a bubble where those values get trampled.
I got to thinking about how to navigate the treacherous waters of partisan politics while at the same time being true to one's self and not alienating clients and colleagues. The easy answer is to keep your mouth shut and your opinions to yourself. That's how our parents and grandparents coached us to behave professionally. But it's not so easy these days.
In the dark ages before social media, I might have kept my personal life completely segregated from my business life. No more. Today all those relationships are jumbled together across a spectrum of social platforms. My private and public lives have become blurred.
And I like it that way. I also like that I have friends, clients and colleagues across the political spectrum. It makes life interesting and it hopefully helps me to keep an open and inquisitive mind.
Still, you need some guidelines and more than a little common sense to avoid the landmines that can be set off with the stray comment or post.
In this contentious and polarizing election cycle, here are my personal guidelines for discussing politics and other dangerous topics.
In the office
As an agency, rule number one is to respect others and create an environment where people feel free to express their opinions and disagree with each other. Ironically, as the boss that means I try my damnedest to keep my political opinions to myself so that I don't make anyone feel uncomfortable. When I do hear someone expressing a point of view that I disagree with I commend them for taking a stand and look for some common ground. We talk a lot about diversity in this business and that should also extend to how we think about political and social issues.
My grandfather told me to never discuss politics and religion and I honor his advice, for the most part. You might say I don't throw the first punch. But this is a social business where we spend a lot of time with clients. We share meals, long meetings, and sometimes travel. Friendships form. You quickly learn how people think and what they care about. Sometimes you discover you share a great many opinions. And sometimes you discover that you don't. My personal guideline: Never argue and always look for a thread of agreement. When the chasm is too wide you can always say "I see things differently but I'm really interested in how you think."
And let's be honest here, if they love the agency's work, you can probably survive a little skirmish about Trump vs. Hillary.
My old criterion for connecting with people on Facebook was whether I would feel comfortable sharing pictures of my family. The new criterion may well be can I stomach their political views? That's a bad way to operate. We live in a democracy. We're supposed to disagree.
I'm connected to a motley collection of people on Facebook -- family, friends, clients, employees and an assortment of characters I've met along the way. I like them all but doubt we all share the same politics. Sure, I could filter some of them, but I believe in more inclusion, not less.
I don't hide my point of view but I don't shove it in people's faces either. Although sometimes tempted, I also don't trash the opposition. Some of my best friends are voting for them.
Lest you get the wrong idea, I'm not completely tolerant. Politics be damned, we should all condemn hatred, racism and bigotry wherever they appear. On this point all the agencies I know are on the right side of the fight.