05/30/2012 06:33 pm ET Updated Jul 30, 2012

Political Fodder? Act Accordingly

Not long ago, on my way to the Very Large Array on New Mexico's San Agustin Plains, I passed through an historic old western town touted in tourist magazines and brochures as a 'must-stop' artist enclave. As I approached the town with anticipation, I was welcomed by a very large sign expressing a polarizing political view. The town was small and before I could recover from my astonishment, I was on the other side. Apparently, the sign maker was passionate about their message because instead of being thanked for my visit and invited back, a second politically polarizing sign was the last thing I saw as I exited the town.

Everyone knows that the U.S. population is vast and diverse with varying beliefs and points of view. Some of us lean one way, others lean completely opposite. It's fair to say that all positions can be fervently argued. While I don't believe that it is ever a good policy for (most) small businesses to express their political views, in this economy and political climate it is equivalent to telling half the population that you do not want their business.

It seemed to me that this small town, off the beaten track and financially invested in attracting visitors, would be much better served to greet potential spenders with a non-partisan message. After all, money is green -- not red or blue -- and is the lifeblood of any enterprise, struggling or secure. And I wondered, is this the view of everyone, every businessperson and politico in town or just an overzealous citizen? Regardless, the damage to the town -- as a single entity -- was done.

The same holds true in the digital world. With the continued growth of social media outlets, relationships with our customers, vendors, peers and prospects can be reinforced in as little as 140 characters or as long as a manifesto. I'd wager that, as a small business owner or senior leader, you have worked too hard cultivating your customer base to alienate them with a social media message that may offend. Unless you are running a politically based operation, you and your digital marketing team would be wise to limit your social media comments to relevant business/industry topics.

Be conscious of accounts and individuals that the business is following or 'liking'. This information is mostly public and your customers, potential clients and competitors are likely -- for innocent enough or not reasons -- watching. Avoid re-tweeting or sharing a controversial comment, link or other telling piece of information regardless of how compelling it is to you. With each interaction, posting or forward you are creating an image of your business -- a public persona.

If you simply must volley views back and forth in the online world, it would be wise to create separate, personal accounts that have no association with your business or business' name. If you actively participate in controversial online forums or groups, do so through your personal accounts. But heads up, just like we tell our teens, your online reputation will follow you everywhere you go. It has an unlimited lifespan.

In a live environment, if you back a position or candidate and want to make your support known, post any sign(s) away from the eyes of your 'public'. Refrain from discussing these matters within communal earshot -- even if you think no one is listening, they very well could be. Steer clear of talking about these matters with employees. It's difficult to build a respectful relationship if one party or the other insists upon pressing a subject where there may be very little agreement.

If you are unsure of whether or not you might be crossing that slippery public/personal opinion slope, a good rule of thumb is to ask yourself if you would feel comfortable addressing the issue at hand in a face-to-face conversation with your customers and prospects. In most cases, the answer would be no, inappropriate behavior. Act accordingly.