The Guide Dogs Victoria debacle is a reminder of the thin line between politics and business

Pure Public Relations founder Phoebe Netto investigates the importance of political neutrality following the CEO of Guide Dogs Victoria, Karen Hayes, being stood down after using her platform to endorse federal treasurer Josh Frydenberg.

Guide Dogs Victoria’s Karen Hayes has had a harsh reminder of the importance of political neutrality when an ad featuring her endorsement of Liberal Party deputy leader Josh Frydenberg led to her swift dismissal from the charity.

Karen Hayes’s ad was incredibly short-sighted, not just because of the negative public reaction, but the impact on Guide Dogs Victoria’s political leverage. The role of a charity CEO is to win funding and support from both the government and the public. How are Guide Dogs Victoria going to effectively lobby or work with a Labor government (should they get in this election time – and even if they don’t) with a clear endorsement for the Liberals fresh in everyone’s minds?

Charities must learn to work effectively with all political parties at all levels of government. When done well, charities gain leverage, build momentum, and can even play the parties off of one another. By fronting this ad, they risked losing these important tools.

We’re not in Kansas anymore

The upcoming election isn’t a normal election. We’re all still coming down from the stresses and heightened emotions of the pandemic, global turmoil, and an unsteady economy. Compared to previous years, this campaign has a much higher level of angst, loud opinion, frustration, and weariness, combined with a much lower level of tolerance, understanding, and respect for politicians.

We no longer have the patience for personality politics, and any brand that chooses to associate itself with any given personality risks tarring itself with the same brush. We’ve not yet had the ability to take a deep breath, and as a result, any overt political links will create far more outrage than in the past. Even something as seemingly innocuous as a politician coming to do a tour of your business could be turned on its head – whether it’s a hard hat-toting factory tour or a prime ministerial hair wash.

If your business is the setting for a campaign stop, you might be unwittingly attaching your business to a candidate. Previously, this wouldn’t come with the presumption of this meaning your business is aligned with that candidate – you were just the lucky business to have an exciting visit. In today’s climate, you are now associating your business with a polarising personality.

Corporate and charity leaders must remain aware of political sensitivities and use their platform with care – even if they’re technically off the clock. While it’s not realistic to muzzle your entire workforce, at a minimum, there needs to be an understanding of speaking with respect and not being polarising with a loud view.

Coming off the fence

While neutrality is typically the smart choice for brands, for those who are determined to pick a side, there are much better ways to go about it. The trick is to make any messaging more about the issues, rather than the person or the party.

Brands should avoid stating that a single politician is going to be the silver bullet. No one believes it, and it’s always going to come across like a political ad. Plus, if they’re someone who rubs people the wrong way, then it’s going to backfire.

By sticking to the issues rather than politicians themselves, brands can effectively ‘pick a side’ without limiting themselves or making their association permanent. They can say something along the lines of: ‘I’ve always said that the issues are what matters. In this instance, the other party is doing a better job. I will support whoever is willing to prioritise these issues.’

At all times, remember that the nation is divided in its views, and so if you take a bold position, then there will be people who will disagree with you. Being polarising is not a smart move for every business.

Ultimately, the goal for brands and charities should be longevity. Personalities come and go, but brand loyalty is forever. By choosing the side of neutrality, they’ll be far more likely to go the distance – whichever party the public chooses come election day.

Phoebe Netto is the founder of Pure Public Relations


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