The 2016 presidential election has been one of the most hotly contested, bizarre and controversial elections in a long time. From the primaries through to the general election campaigns, there have been controversies, accusations and more than enough to talk about. But should freelancers talk politics?
It’s an important question today as politics is more divisive than ever before, and the ways we interact and debate are more public than ever before. Our personal and professional lives mix on social media, and even your personal blog can quickly show up in search results alongside your professional resume.
First amendment rights usually don’t protect your job and people can and have been fired over political beliefs (the first amendment prohibits the government from infringing on free speech, but not your boss). Freelancers aren’t safe either, where jobs can come and go even more easily, often with little explanation.
So what’s a freelancer to do? Should you show your support with an enthusiastic retweet? Register your outrage at the latest controversy? Is silence really safer? Or do you risk losing a personal and relatable touch?
We talked to a number of WordPress freelancers and professionals—some quiet and some vocal— about politics. We’re not looking to endorse any political position, just to help you navigate the potential minefield of politics and freelancing. Ultimately you’ll need to make your own decision about what to say or not say, but hopefully, these pros can give you a little guidance along the way.
Losing Work is a Reality
“In social media, as in everything, you need to decide who you are and how you want to present yourself to the world,” says Jesse Petersen, founder of Petersen Media Group. “You’ll lose business, which is a fact. How comfortable you are with that happening will guide you on what to say and when and on what channels.”
Politics—or any number of things—can cost you business. That’s the reality of being a freelancer and especially of using social media. But it’s important not to be so intimidated by a controversy that you miss the benefits.
“I have, in fact, been discriminated against in the workplace because of my personal and political views on certain subjects,” says Sarah Pressler, a freelance project manager by day and law school student by night. “For what it’s worth, I am not concerned about that too much though, because it tells me a lot about someone’s character if they cannot look past personal opinions and worldviews to work with/employ someone.”
There’s certainly a balance to strike. Being relatable and showing personality in social media or online can bring in business. You can get to know people better. It’s one of the main reasons freelancers use social media.
“We’ve had a number of clients come to us and ultimately trust us with their business explicitly because they enjoyed the personality they see on our blog or our social channels,” says Justin Sainton, founder of the web development company Zao.
But some conversations can have negative side effects. Especially politics.
Nothing Productive About Talking Politics
“Political conversations in social media tend to dive deep into rabbit holes where no one ever comes out in a better place,” says freelance WordPress developer Jason Resnick.
We’ve all seen the unending Facebook thread that spirals off into the weeds over some controversial topic. Tempers flare and blood pressure rises, all over an online conversation.
“I say nothing because you can’t have a reasonable discussion online about stuff like this,” says freelance WordPress developer Curtis McHale. “My general rule of thumb is not to argue on the Internet.”
It seems to be exponentially worse when the topic is politics. Research has shown that many people have already decided who they’ll vote for and nothing will change their mind.
“Social media just isn’t a great place (the majority of the time) for serious conversations,” says freelance WordPress developer Carrie Dils. “I liken it to bumper stickers—bumper stickers don’t change people’s minds and neither do tweets or Facebook posts.”
Pros & Cons of Freelancers Talking Politics
If talking politics doesn’t change anything, why talk about it? That’s probably a larger question than we can answer here, but people talk politics as a way to engage and relate to others. There are certainly pros and cons to freelancers talking politics.
Pros to Talking Politics
- Being willing to talk politics (or any potentially controversial issue) can make you more relatable. People can connect with you because you’re up front and real. A little passion can humanize you (and too much passion can demonize you—see cons below).
- Navigating a sharp divide between the personal and professional can be a challenge. Refusing to create that divide and letting your personal and professional life mix can be a lot easier.
- If you’re comfortable talking politics—and assuming you do it well (a bold assumption)—you’re likely to be better at difficult conversations. You can handle conflict with professionalism. That’s important because disagreements will happen with clients, and you need to be able to disagree well and defend your position.
Cons to Talking Politics
- You might lose business. This is debatable—some of our experts have said it happens, and others have said they’re vocal and it’s never happened to them. Others make the case that the business you might lose is business you wouldn’t want anyway. Regardless of how you parse it, you need to be aware that it’s a reality.
- You can inadvertently turn people away, either because they disagree with you or they simply want to avoid politics entirely. This could be business leads, but it could just as easily be potential partners, advisors or some other kind of help. Talking politics might make you more relatable (see pros above), but that’s only with some people. Others can be put off by it.
- People who talk politics a lot often end up sounding overly negative. This isn’t always the case, but it’s the rare person who can talk politics and always be positive.
You’ll have to sort out the pros and cons and make a decision yourself about whether or not you want to talk about politics.
Personal vs. Professional
Many of the pros and cons come down to how you approach the inherent tension between the personal and professional. This is a basic issue you need to sort out on social media before you even consider talking politics.
Social media communicates a lot about who you are. That’s why people use social media. It’s a way to connect and relate to people. It’s a way to bring in business. That’s where the tension comes in. Some people choose to separate the personal and the professional completely, others try to find a balance and still others embrace the tension.
“There is no separation between my personal life and my professional life,” says Nancy Lyons, the founder and CEO of the digital agency Clockwork. “It’s in trying to separate those two things that we get ourselves into trouble.”
Life doesn’t always separate easily, which is one of the early lessons of social media: How often has an overzealous party post come back to haunt a job applicant?
But that tension isn’t always a bad thing.
“Sometimes business is personal,” says Jesse Petersen. “Earlier this year, we had a funding emergency to proceed with a surprise adoption. I created a WordPress site, installed GiveWP and three days later we paid our $10,000 legal fee to the agency. Almost 80% of donations were from business associates through the WordPress community. Business got very personal.”
Social media is personal. It allows stories like Jesse’s to happen, and that’s why people use it. That doesn’t have to end for freelancers.
“While some people have found it helpful to compartmentalize their lives—separating sacred from secular, family from friends, work life from personal life—I have found a more integrated life to be helpful,” says Justin Sainton. “Now in my 12th year of running Zao, I have yet to regret this approach.”
This kind of holistic view works because it aligns with how Justin Sainton sees the world and operates. He’s consistent.
“Whether it’s a business or personal relationship—at the end of the day, you’re one person working with another person,” says Sainton. “If our social channels give our potential clients a look into the types of personalities they’ll be dealing with—mixing our personal and professional personas on social media actually has a positive impact. It weeds out the clients that wouldn’t want to work with us based on our personalities and personal preferences—and that improves our client relationships immensely.”
It seems the relevant point is consistency, not whether or not you discuss politics.
“I don’t waste my time even watching the arguments,” says Curtis McHale. “I ship work for clients.”
Curtis refuses to touch politics, but it’s not because he doesn’t care, it’s because he sees it as an unproductive distraction. His approach is consistent with who he is—productive, focused, determined.
“There’s no point in trying to hide who I am,” says Nancy Lyons. “If I do—if I live or work in a disingenuous way—it’ll only be discovered. And that is worse than just living my truth.”
Being true to who you are is important. But you should also recognize that it’s about more than simply whether or not you talk politics; it’s about how you talk about politics:
I truly hate politics and the time around elections. It always brings out the worst in people.
— jamesdalman (@jamesdalman) July 22, 2016
If you are going to attempt to broach the political in any way and bridge the personal and the professional, you need to do so with respect.
“We don’t all have to agree on major political issues but we should all be respectful of one another in a professional sense,” says Sarah Pressler.
This is often where freelancers talking politics can either work or fail miserably. What’s your tone?
“If you’re sincere, regardless of what you say, if it’s within the context of everything you say, people get to know you and respect the differences,” says Jesse Petersen.
Respect makes all the difference.
Strategies: How Freelancers Talk Politics (Or Not)
So how do we actually navigate this minefield? Let’s look at some practical strategies to get through it.
1. Steer Clear
Of course, the simplest and safest thing you can do is to steer clear of politics altogether.
“Politics is a sensitive subject for a lot of people,” says Jason Resnick. “I was taught at an early age by my grandparents that politics and religion—unless in the company of those who won’t immediately judge you and who will listen to your perspectives—should be left unspoken about.”
2. Acknowledge, But Don’t Pick a Side
Another approach to talking politics without actually talking politics is to acknowledge the elephant in the room.
Sometimes the political reality is so extreme or a situation so bizarre, that even though you’ve vowed to be silent about politics online, you should still say something. In those cases, it might be best to acknowledge that something important is happening without making a statement for or against it.
Here’s a good example from James Dalman’s nonprofit Happy Joe:
— Happy Joe (@HappyJoeCo) August 3, 2016
It can humanize you without diving into the combative, divisive nature of the debate. You can remain neutral but still appear connected and engaged. Even though you don’t weigh in on a side, people see that you’re feeling the same thing they’re feeling.
3. Know Yourself
As you decide how to approach politics as a freelancer, it helps to know yourself. Your entire approach to social media should be based on your own personality and your professional brand. How do you want to come across? That should mesh with who you are and how you best communicate.
If you like to shoot from the hip, make bold statements and deal with the potential fallout, then you might have no problem being outspoken about politics on social media.
But if you don’t like conflict and get nervous about heated debates, you probably want to stay away.
You might also find yourself somewhere in the middle. Maybe you want to speak up and you’re willing to suffer the consequences, but you also don’t like the distraction it can become. If that’s you, maybe you need another outlet. Maybe you need somewhere to talk politics that’s separate from your professional channels, whether it’s another public social media account or just a private Word doc where you get things off your chest.
Some people can watch what’s happening in the world and keep right on moving. Other people need to process it. If you’re a processor and you don’t want to do that in a public way where your clients can see it, find a way you can process and then get back to work.
It might also help to have a separate social media channel specifically for your business, where only business conversations happen. Your personal channel might cover everything, including business, but that exclusively business channel gives people a chance to keep up with your professional exploits without having to see every personal post.
4. Be Yourself
Once you understand who you are, you need to be that person. It’s one thing to know who you are, it’s another thing to live that out consistently.
“If I can’t be myself, am I really being honest to those who have entrusted me with a follow?” asks Jesse Petersen.
Be consistent with who you are. Don’t post a bold and brash comment if it doesn’t align with who you are, even if in the moment you are riled up and want to say something bold and brash.
“Be yourself,” says Justin Sainton. “The world needs more people that are more fully themselves in all situations. … That said, there are certainly different channels, different circles of friends and different levels of discussion that occur in these differing arenas. Learning how to wisely navigate those circles is certainly a process I think we’re all working through.”
5. Remember Who’s Watching
It can be easy to get caught up in the moment and blurt something out on social media. Sometimes we need that simple reminder that social media can be seen by anyone. We need to remember that clients, potential business partners, referrals and more are watching what we say and how we say it.
“My social media accounts were all personal for years before my business came along, so publishing personal tidbits is par for the course,” says Carrie Dils. “That said, I’ve always been mindful that anyone, including my customers, clients and parents (!) can read what I post. I don’t want to post anything that could come back to bite me in the butt.”
We also need to remember how hard it is to convey tone on social media. It lacks all the nonverbal feedback of a face-to-face conversation. So the comment you think is sarcastic and innocent might actually come across as mean and insensitive. There are just so many opportunities for it to fall off the rails.
“It’s not that I’m averse to political conversations,” says Jason Resnick. “But having it in plain text, with no tone or context within a conversation isn’t something I would be comfortable contributing to the firehose of social media.”
So you need to be that much more careful about your tone. Consider how someone who completely disagrees with you would read it—does it still feel like a funny comment or does it start to sound bitter?
7. Self Edit
Which brings us to the importance of self-editing. If you’re going to talk politics as a freelancer, you absolutely need to do some editing.
“Do I say every darn thing that pops into my head?” says Jesse Petersen. “Heck no! I self-edit a dozen times per day on hot political days.”
8. The Internet Never Forgets
You also need to remember that the internet never forgets.
“I still get responses to tweets from last year on articles and such,” says Jason Resnick. “So what would the context be of a political tweet today be one, two or five years from now?”
Many of us who have been online for a while are used to the idea that what we post will be out there forever. It may be one thing to dismiss your college rants, a more recent political screed may be harder to explain and impossible to erase.
9. Accept the Consequences
However you decide to approach politics, be prepared to accept the consequences.
By choosing to use social media and other marketing channels, you’re accepting the risk that comes with the freedom to speak so openly and connect with audiences. There can be great benefits, but there can also be real consequences.
“I highly recommend implementing a strategy of some sort to help hold yourself accountable to your own social media communications,” says Sarah Pressler. “Hindsight being 20/20, I wish I had been less ‘transparent’ on social media over the last five years.”
Social media is one of those things you can’t take back. So be sure you’re willing to live with what you say.
Part of being vocal in a public way online is having the humility to recognize when you say something dumb and own up to it. People change their minds. People have regrets. That doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t have said something in the first place, but you have to know there’s going to be a certain amount of inconsistency over the years. If that bothers you, you might need to hold back on what you say.
Politics is Personal
As we’ve seen this election, politics is deeply personal. People get emotional. Energy runs high, and it’s very easy to inadvertently distance yourself from others. That’s something freelancers need to keep in mind.
You might not want to be that personal when it comes to your business. And maybe you do.
We’re not here to make a decision for you, but hopefully these perspectives from WordPress freelancers and professionals can help you weigh the pros and cons and made a decision about whether or not to talk politics as a freelancer.