Wednesday, August 25, 2010

On Google, Net Neutrality, Political Activism and Brand Identity

With the recent news on the Google-Verizon agreement on Net Neutrality, across the Internet there has been an explosion of outrage over Google's position. People are angry at Google. I've seen several posts highlighting how this new position completely contradicts their previously stated position.

It's worth noting that all of the outrage coverage has been directed at Google, not Verizon. I suspect that the reason for this is brand identity and expected position. In the general public, there is little question that Verizon is a business focused on their earnings and profits. Verizon doesn't promote itself with messages like "Don't be Evil." And while Verizon probably participates in charities and social philanthropy at a level similar to most large corporations, I don't think that you'll find anyone who believes that Verizon is aligned to a moral compass. It's a business, and as a business, you expect the company to pursue goals that will yield more income, more profits.

Google, in contrast, has been at the forefront of numerous moral and ethical debates. From privacy to it's business in China, Google has found itself delicately trying to balance moral compass with business expediency. In that way, the problem for Google with it's recent position in the Net Neutrality debate is that the business looked at the opportunities and business potential and chose to compromise. From a business perspective that's understandable, but from a moral compass standpoint it falls short.

Blending Politics and Business Can Become a PR IED
While many businesses invest in lobbying and the politics of attempting to shape the business climate, recent court rulings like the Citizens United case have broadly expanded the potential scope of political spending. It's now possible for businesses to contribute to political campaigns with limited restrictions. However, just because many of the legal spending restrictions have been removed, it doesn't eliminate the branding and PR landmine that can result from this kind of activity.

The easiest example of this danger happened during the Minnesota primary elections (here's a link to an article with some back story). Whether it was a business decision or driven by the politics of their CEO, Target decided to contribute to the campaign of a "pro-business" Republican candidate. Here's a quote from the ABC article with the rest of the story:
Target Corp. sparked a firestorm  in recent weeks after gay rights advocates, employees and some customers protested the company's financial support for Emmer, who opposes same-sex marriage. The company's CEO Gregg Steinhafel later apologized.

Schultz said much of the backlash at Target may have been due to the image they have been publicly cultivating with their customers. "You didn't see much backlash at Best Buy or Polaris because they aren't billing themselves as socially-responsible," he said.

"Different businesses will face different public relations problems with their political contributions," said Schier. "Going forward after the Target flap, I think you can expect fewer conspicuous corporate donations from high-profile businesses."
Now it could be that the entire issue will simply pass once the election is over, but it's clearly a potential hazard associated with this type of spending.

In the case of Google and Net Neutrality, regardless of the position that they decide to take with respect to where there business interests lie, it's worth noting that when it comes to advocating Net Neutrality, if not Google, then who? What other company or political entity has the position and standing to advocate for all of our interests and the future of the Internet?

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