If you’ve been following the news, you’ve seen the blowup over two major political issues -- conservative news sources allegedly being suppressed by Facebook and the blowback hitting Target for their decision to publicly announce that their restrooms are no longer gender specific. Part of the beauty of observing a free, capitalist society is observing how different private organizations handle political dust-ups.
Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, states on his personal Facebook page: “Our community's success depends on everyone feeling comfortable sharing anything they want. It doesn't make sense for our mission or our business to suppress political content or prevent anyone from seeing what matters most to them.”
Zuckerberg emphasized that Facebook is a place where political opinions should be freely expressed, and that it's not a company that would espouse its own set of values for the world of social media to comply with. This makes perfect business sense -- become the platform for ideas instead of alienating a large chunk of the world’s population.
Target also inserted itself into the political spotlight by making a bold decision to proactively announce that their bathroom policy has been revised to allow for transgender individuals to use the bathroom of their choice. This is a markedly different path from Facebook. Target is blatantly taking a political stand that could alienate a large chunk of their customer base.
1. Is controversy good advertisement, Donald Trump?
If the rise of The Donald in the presidential election has taught us anything, it's that grabbing headlines with controversial decisions and statements can do wonders for a cash-strapped marketing strategy. It’s estimated that Trump has received more than $2 billion in free media coverage because of statements he’s made via Twitter and in off-the-cuff political rallies, captivating the news cycle and sucking the oxygen out of the fight for the oval office.
Could adopting Trump’s style translate into a positive bounce in Target’s fiscal performance? It isn’t likely. Target isn’t running for president. They’re fighting for marketshare, and they’re struggling. According to a USPN report, Target has lost more than $1.5 billion and suffered a dip in stock price after taking some controversial political stands.
Facebook, on the other hand, has largely changed the narrative from a politically divisive story to a positive focus on providing a platform for all voices to come together in one place online. As Facebook didn’t overtly take a political stand and has fought accusations that it manually suppressed conservative voices, it has managed to focus on bringing people together instead of claiming its own morally righteous high-ground.
Related: 5 Ways to Use the 'Trump Effect'
2. The danger in fixing non-existent problems and losing half your customer base.
By many accounts, Target didn’t really change anything with their new bathroom policy. I regularly shop at Target and have never seen a bathroom security officer managing which bathroom is used by which individual. The idea that transgender individuals are barred from using specific restrooms isn’t something I’ve ever witnessed.
Target didn’t have a policy on bathroom use per gender identification prior to their announcement. Their announcement was designed to combat the government legislature that has rolled out in some precincts, designed to limit bathroom access to the gender listed on an individual’s birth certificate. How such a thing could be policed is really beyond me, but apparently this is a political hot-button issue that has developed.
Honestly, to this humble writer, it appears that both sides are arguing over a non-issue, at least where Target is concerned. The wiser decision, to preserver share price and customer loyalty from all political spectrums, would have been to simply continue doing what they had already been doing. Target doesn’t police their bathrooms, and they didn’t actively enforce gender rules. To launch a crusade to identify their bathrooms as transgender friendly seems redundant and potentially very harmful to their shareholder’s bottom line.
Establishing meaningful, open lines of communication.
Facebook responded to their political dust-up by establishing lines of communication. Unlike Target, they chose to avoid preaching to those who disagree with their political views. Instead, by all accounts, Zuckerberg and his team held a candid 73-minute conference with representatives of the conservative movement in the United States. Instead of judging their views, Facebook encouraged them to take part in the conversation on their social media platform and committed to providing an equally accessible communication platform to hold their conversations about politics and current events.
Facebook was able to point to Fox News, a conservative-leaning news organization, which has done incredibly well on Facebook. According to some reports, Fox News actually has the most monthly interactions of any legacy news outlet on the site. If there’s a bias on the part of Facebook, Fox News is certainly doing exceptionally well under the alleged circumstances.
Action items for business leaders.
First, in a conflict, especially one that’s politically charged, attempt to find the neutral position that allows both sides to express themselves without organizationally imposed bias.
Second, taking a stand on a political issue will cost your company customers. Although, it’s possible that there could be a net gain if the issue is framed properly.
Lastly, act quickly to open lines of communication and encourage genuine conversations between parties that feel marginalized by your organization.