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Appease or provoke? How to address hot political topics with thought leadership

Thomas Sturge

“The mixing of politics and business not only is detrimental to politics, as is frequently observed, but even much more so to business,” said Ludwig von Mises, the 20th-century Austrian School economist and historian.

I doubt von Mises had thought leadership in mind, but for years marketeers have followed that advice. The reason is simple: by taking a stance on a controversial political issue, businesses risk alienating customers that have the opposing view. Some businesses are so afraid of offending major clients that they ignore political issues altogether.

But major political topics – Brexit, the US Presidential election, the Covid-19 response – increasingly shape the business world. Silence is no longer possible or desirable.

Getting it right, however, is not easy, so how can brands effectively address controversial political topics with their thought leadership?

  1. Don’t ignore big political issues, however controversial they are

The first step is to acknowledge that politics cannot be ignored. This sounds simple enough, but some of our clients do ignore big political issues because they don’t want to offend important clients.

One client we worked with a few years ago, for instance, refused to address emerging geopolitical tension in a report about emerging business risks because they didn’t want to upset colleagues and clients in China. This created an obvious gap in the narrative and detracted from the credibility of the campaign. It would have been perfectly possible to explore this topic in a balanced way without offending anyone or taking sides.

  1. Don’t take a view if you don’t want to

Addressing politics doesn’t mean you have to take sides or adopt a particular position on potentially controversial topics. Take the US Presidential election: it would be impossible to ignore it in any thought leadership on, for example, investment or M&A.

But this doesn’t mean you have to endorse a candidate. You can analyse the consequences for businesses based on candidates’ pledges in a dispassionate way without stating that one candidate would be better for business than the other.

One method that has worked well in the past is to interview experts on both sides of the debate, and showcase their views in the thought leadership. This approach allows different opinions to be raised without taking a side yourself.

  1. But if you do, state your position with conviction

This doesn’t mean that businesses should never take a position on political issues – after all, many business leaders openly supported the Remain campaign in the run-up to the Brexit referendum in 2016. But if you do, it’s important to communicate your viewpoint with conviction and clear reasoning.

Customers, employees, suppliers and other stakeholders that do not share a business’ stated political view will be far more accommodating if the rationale for their point of view is clearly articulated and backed up with evidence, and if the reasons for the opposing view are acknowledged.

  1. Remember ‘small p’ political issues

Leaving major international political events aside, businesses also need to talk about politics that is closer to home. After all, many corporates say they have a social purpose and responsibility for a broad set of stakeholders, including employees and customers. So ignoring political issues such as diversity and inclusion, income inequality or the gig economy – the topics that directly affect these individuals – undermines any bold statements about purpose.

Even without the need to align with corporate messaging on purpose, it is increasingly difficult to talk about major business topics without addressing these types of political issues. Can you really say something meaningful about the effectiveness of the board without addressing diversity? Will your thought leadership on emerging business risks get noticed if you do not address income inequality?

  1. Do not rely on the words to do the talking

Businesses can tackle political issues in thought leadership without even writing about them. Take diversity and inclusion. It is a topic that will not naturally be given much airtime in a thought leadership campaign about, for example, adoption of cloud technology. But businesses can still address it by ensuring that those interviewed and quoted represent a diverse mix of views and backgrounds, and an equal representation of genders.

Get all this right, and not only will your thought leadership be free to address the political elephants in the room, but it might also effect positive change.

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About the author: Thomas Sturge

Tom is an integral part of our burgeoning editorial team. He helps FT Longitude’s clients plan and deliver high-quality and impactful thought leadership campaigns, advising from campaign planning, through the content creation stage, to the final activation push.

Tom joined FT Longitude in May 2018 from The Lawyer, where he was head of thought leadership and research.

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