Picture this: Australia is deep into a brutal election campaign. Politicians and wannabe candidates have savaged each other in public, cleaving public opinion along clear party lines. At a moment when the nation has never felt so divided, when one voter’s saviour is another’s pariah, a real-life politician shows up on your business’ doorstep. The news cameras are there, too. What do you do?
While political photo opportunities are tightly managed affairs, they can still have significant implications for your business. Take the case of one bakery in regional NSW, which last week offered Prime Minister Scott Morrison a box of cupcakes — sparking social media abuse and threats of a consumer boycott.
With the election campaign officially underway, SmartCompany asked Peter Strong, former CEO of the Council of Small Business Organisations Australia, and Phoebe Netto, managing director of Pure Public Relations, for their photo op do’s and don’ts.
Here’s what you should do before letting a politician don a hairnet or borrow your hi-vis.
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Know what you’re in for
The vast majority of political drop-ins are planned far in advance, meaning the appearance of an MP should come as no surprise. That doesn’t mean small businesses should expect a straight-forward affair.
Firstly, businesses should recognise the difference between a standard visit and one made on the campaign trail. It’s not unusual for elected officials to meet with local industry leaders, but gatherings in election season are carefully designed to benefit politicians.
“It’s funny, when it’s not an election campaign, it doesn’t seem to matter [to the public],” Strong said. “But during an election campaign, for some people, it will be seen as a statement. So be careful.”
Even if you don’t vote for a particular party, being seen with one of the candidates could convince onlookers that you do. That kind of perception is not always ideal, Netto says.
“Compared to previous elections, this election 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.
“And when your business is the setting for a campaign stop, the optics are attaching your business to a candidate.”
It’s a good thing that politicians want to be associated with small business owners, Strong says. However, it’s vital that SMEs ensure those visits don’t “blow up in your face at some stage”.
Lashing out is risky business
Meet-and-greets don’t always go a politician’s way.
While visiting a Newcastle pub last week, Morrison was confronted by 73-year-old Ray Drury, who said politicians repeatedly ignored claims he was receiving incorrect pension payments. A large media cadre was there to capture Drury’s impassioned statement, and his deep frustrations became headline news.
By seizing a rare audience with the Prime Minister, Drury pulled attention to his claims of political inaction, undoing any goodwill Morrison hoped to receive at the pub.
He took on the Prime Minister at a Lake Macquarie pub in the middle of an election photo op and tonight Ray Drury exclusively tells NBN News his side of the story.
— NBN News (@nbnnews) April 7, 2022
But business operators should think carefully before verbally lashing a politician on camera, the experts say.
“Don’t embarrass a politician, because that will reflect poorly on you,” Netto said.
“Allowing a visit with the intention of blasting a politician might earn you some fame and even applause from some, but there will be many who view this negatively, and while they don’t verbalise this, they will respond by closing the door to supporting or working with your business.”
Strong agreed, suggesting businesses might lose just as many customers as they hope to gain by turning the screws on an election candidate. In short: anyone planning to publicly flame a politician ought to be comfortable with their decision, and recognise the possibility that some customers won’t feel the same way.
Netto says there are other ways for SME operators to express their viewpoint.
“You could start these questions off like this: ‘Will you be…’, ‘Have you considered…’, ‘I hope that…’ and ask these in front of journalists,” she said.
This “makes it clear that you are not blindly supporting any one party.”
Seize the opportunity with your own statement
If a politician visits your business on the campaign trail, it’s not a bad idea to capitalise on the moment with your own statement.
“Prepare to maximise the attention, while tempering any negative assumptions that people might have, by putting out your own media comments and posting on social media straight after the visit,” Netto said.
“These will be included in some journalists’ reports, and will be sitting there ready for any in the media or the community (including keyboard warriors) who come to ask you questions or criticise you.”
Such a statement could reflect your business’ impartiality, she said, while expressing your hopes that whoever is elected acts on your most significant concerns.
Business operators hoping to put their concerns in front of politicians can also lean on industry support networks, Strong says.
“The best way is through your local business group, your industry associations, that’s the best way to do it,” he said. “They’ll give you the advice, and they’ll work with you. And if they think you’re a good case study, they’ll do it.”
All told, businesses ought to be wary of political photo ops, the experts say.
But if you do go accept a campaign visit, be sure to make your viewpoints perfectly clear beforehand, during, and afterwards.