Is sitting safely in the middle – the best place for small business owners to be in times of protest and political quarry?

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Professor of Organization & Management; Goizueta Term Chair, Organization & Management; Professor of Sociology (by courtesy)
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As the persistent turmoil of protests grips America on an almost daily basis, people are becoming more aware of issues, getting engaged and taking sides. Be it around the dinner table debating, marching in the streets or even arguing on a national news panel – topics like Black Lives Matter, masks during COVID, the upcoming election or a host of other hot-topic issues are all part of the American conversation these days.

It’s easy and even healthy for people to debate the issues – but for a business to pick a side on a controversial topic, it’s a much different picture.

One recent example was Nike’s support of NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick. However, Nike also had the resources to bolster their support. They had a multi-million-dollar ad budget, a public relations machine generating hours of earned media – and the company was, for the most part playing to its core audience. Though there was push-back, Nike was rewarded with increased sales and its stock surged.

For almost a decade now, Chick-fil-A has also boldly taken a stance with its opinion on gay marriage. The restaurant chain has faced mountains of negative press and protests, but the fast-food giant’s bottom lined never suffered. It still sees sales over 10 billion a year.

For Nike and Chik-Fil-A and their deep pockets to wade into the fray with an opinion – it’s one thing, but for a small business to share how it feels, there’s a matter of weighing risk versus reward no matter how important the topic might be.

“It may well be that it’s harder for entrepreneurs to create a viable business model for their venture in a more polarized context, says Giacomo Negro, a Professor of Organization & Management at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School. “If your business is more hybrid—if you’re supportive of a cause without being overtly affiliated with it—then it could be harder to engage other customers or clients who are uncomfortable doing business with a firm that is even vaguely linked to a specific social group or movement. Similarly, the core supporters of the cause can look at the same organization as not authentically engaged with them.”

His findings certainly suggest that existing in a “gray zone,” where you take neither one side or the other, is a hard place for organizations to thrive in times of social change.

“If protest activates the cultural boundary surrounding a group’s identity, then increasing protest participation will threaten the viability of precisely those organizations trying to engage inside and outside audiences,” Negro said. “At the same time, bridging inside and outside audiences also conveys a confusing identity and a more limited commitment to pursuing goals relevant to either audience.”

With a global pandemic impacting all aspects of national and local economies – small businesses are under pressure to sustain and survive like never before. And if you are a journalist looking to cover the state of small businesses in America and whether or not small business has a role to play in protests and politics in America – then let our experts help with your coverage.

Giacomo Negro is a Professor of Organization & Management at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School and is an expert in the area of economic sociology. His resent research study research study, “Which Side Are You On? The Divergent Effects of Protest Participation on Organizations Affiliated with Identity Groups’ focuses on this very subject.

Professor Negro is available to speak with media about this topic – simply click on his icon to arrange an interview today.