RALEIGH – Itching to express a virtuous thought or wax poetic about your commitment to doing the right thing? If you’re heading up a business – especially a small business or startup – you may want to inspect your own house before rushing to your social media feeds.
The past weeks have seen a wide array of organizations taken to task for messages that ostensibly supported racial justice protests but that landed as disingenuous, tone deaf or hypocritical. Major corporations took flack for a stark lack of diversity on leadership teams among other shortcomings. Meantime, some small businesses that posted messages backing the Black Lives Matter movement soon faced criticism for mistreating their own employees, Black and otherwise.
While much has been written about corporate behemoths in this messaging crossfire, the landscape for mom-and-pop shops has gone mostly unexplored. But in some ways, they — actually, ‘we’ as I’m an entrepreneur, too — can be particularly susceptible to blind spots and missteps.
For one thing, social media is simply too good of a deal to pass up, especially for small businesses struggling to get noticed. Now factor in what being engaging and relevant means on social media. Depending on your brand identity, humor, information sharing and community cheerleading can all work.
But as America has become more partisan, no approach packs quite the same punch as opining about political and social issues. Weighing in on matters such as immigration, gender equality and economic disparities can mean notching loads of support from like-minded followers, including potential customers and/or investors.
The flipside, however, is the potential for backlash. And that’s where blind spots can get a small business into big trouble.
Dating back to 2015, “virtue signaling” has been one of social media’s most widespread call-outs. The term refers to talking a good game on hot topics but not really doing anything about it, aligning with a good cause for selfish purposes, posing.
Politicians and big companies enjoy some cushion here. A politician can shrug off virtue signalling with: “Well, you may think I’m grandstanding a bit, but is that really going to make you vote for my reprehensible opponent on the other side of the aisle??” The binary choice works in his/her favor. Besides, polls indicate that our expectations of politicians are thuddingly low.
Corporations employ communications departments to help craft and vett messages on the front end. In cases where a message gets ahead of company policy or where employees call out hypocrisy, big companies have those same comms teams as well as human resources departments and in-house counsel to help manage difficult situations. Plus, they have volume. A media tussle (social and otherwise) may be embarrassing and even pinch financially, but it’s unlikely to spell imminent doom.
Small business owners and startup CEOs have very little in the way of pad. A couple such leaders in my city, Raleigh, who are no strangers to social media described for me some of the factors they now recognize as dangerous. Of course, these observations aren’t true of everyone, still:
Small business owners juggle many jobs and are often exhausted. So when they whip out their phones to share a thought, it may very well be only half thought out.
More fundamentally, haste not only makes for social media mistakes, but can make someone a careless, ill-tempered, short sighted or otherwise deficient boss, which can sow the seeds of an eventual backlash.
Small business owners tend to plow resources back into their core profit centers … and pointedly not into the development of human resources departments or managerial training.
Small business owners are often fervent believers chasing a lifelong dream. This zeal helps them ram through challenges, but perhaps leaves some blind to problems. A devoted press and/or social media following may exacerbate their detachment from troubling realities.
Further, that zeal and hardcore work ethic may mean no one inside the organization feels comfortable offering constructive criticism or calling foul … until things boil over.
Finally, small businesses and startups are competitive for customers, investors etc. Seeing a rival get a leg up in any way could fuel a desire to do them one better, which might only exacerbate some of the points above.
Showing is More Powerful than Telling
The entrepreneurs I spoke with offered these observations not as excuses for bad behavior, but as warnings to make the true health of your business and employees paramount — not rhetoric, not image. As North Carolina’s state motto puts it: “To be rather than to seem.”
Of course, this is America, and if image isn’t everything, it’s still an awfully big deal. The wise course isn’t to forego the potent sense of connection that comes with sharing your hopes and ideals, but to be honest and a little humble about where you are in achieving them.
“I’m not going to post anything,” an entrepreneur told me, “until I check into how the issue is playing out in my company. If it’s about a living wage, I’m going to be up front on how we’re doing — or not doing — in getting our employees there.”
Similarly, it helps to show rather than to tell. In downtown Raleigh, there’s a screenprinter celebrated for his clever customized t-shirts. In support of recent protests, he invited an African-American artist to create an original Black Lives Matters design, which he showcased for sale on social media — with profits going to a local charity. The t-shirt speaks for itself. Rather than offering a treatise, the business owner is simply making his business-related actions known.
In a nutshell, the admonishment to ‘practice what you preach’ has been around for so long, it’s easy to take it for granted. But it not only holds true, social media is here to hold business leaders to it.