Keep your opinions to yourself: that seems pretty harsh. But as a business owner, it’s important that you’re always portraying your company’s brand, both in person and online. Sharing personal opinions – such as politics or religion – could isolate potential clients without you even realizing.

You could be unknowingly scaring off clients

I remember several years ago during a particularly contentious presidential election cycle, I drove past a local business that I often shopped at and noticed they had posted a huge banner out front supporting the opposite candidate I did. Though I loved the business and was even on friendly terms with the business owners, seeing that banner immediately put a bad taste in my mouth. It wasn’t enough to make me stop shopping there, but for some people, they would have boycotted the business on principle.

Another example: in a former job, I managed the marketing team at a company that produced software for health care insurance brokers. Obviously, the introduction of the Affordable Care Act (or “Obamacare”), made a huge impact on their business, and many brokers strongly disliked the program. However, I counseled many of them to avoid bashing Obamacare or sharing anything political on their social media accounts, because clients or prospects with opposite views may take offense.

The bottom line is, if you have a strong stance on a contentious or controversial issue that has two or more opposing viewpoints, it’s best to keep that opinion to yourself in any business-related forum. I even have a client who cheers for an out-of-state football team, but refuses to wear that gear when meeting potential clients or even put a sticker on his work vehicle, in fear of turning off diehard local fans.

Simple tips to avoid controversial topics

Though it seems straightforward to keep politics, religion and other contentious topics out of your business life, it’s good to keep in mind a few simple guidelines.

1.       Keep personal and business social media accounts separate. If you have a personal Twitter or Facebook account where you want to rant about sports, share opinions on news stories, or talk about your kids, that’s fine. But make sure you keep your business contacts off that account, and create a completely separate account for your business interactions. Even in this case, I find that a small business’s brand is often intertwined with the owner to the point that their personal social media account ends up representing their business as well—so often it’s better just to keep those opinions off social media altogether.

2.       Think about your potential customers. It’s good to have convictions, and I’m not saying you should never share them. But think twice before you post a political sign in front of your business, or comment on the latest trending topic. Consider if a reasonable percentage of your target population could get offended by it—and remember, people aren’t going to tell you they are offended, they simply won’t buy from you.

3.       Be cognizant where you are. Even if you’re at a social event, you may still need to wear your business hat if clients or potential clients are there. That’s the thing about being a business owner: you are always representing your business. You’d hate to go into a long rant about the Catholic Church after a couple cocktails at a wedding reception, only to find out a client of yours was sitting behind you and deeply offended by your remarks.

4.       Set standards for what is and isn’t acceptable. As your business grows, other people than you will be representing your company on social media, speaking with clients, pitching stories to the press, and countless other ways, so it’s important that everyone is on the same page. Establish a set of guidelines that define what your brand and personality is, what type of comments and stories are appropriate to share, and what isn’t appropriate. Going back to the insurance broker example above, it would be prudent to share Obamacare updates, and maybe ask clients their opinion, but not to pass judgment from the broker’s point of view. So that should be defined for everyone at the insurance brokerage, so individuals know to keep their opinions to themselves and share the company message only.

Your turn: Have you ever had an experience with a comment on social media or in person that rubbed a client the wrong way? What are your best tips for managing your company’s brand and avoiding unnecessary controversy? Share your thoughts below!