Should Shopify heed petitions to ditch Breitbart as a client?

The alt-right news outlet uses the Ottawa-based company’s e-commerce platform for its online store. Three experts weigh in on how to handle a controversial client

In this Oct 7, 2016 photo, Steve Bannon, former head of Breitbart News and campaign CEO for then Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, appears at a national security meeting with advisors at Trump Tower in New York. (AP / Evan Vucci, File)

In this Oct 7, 2016 photo, Steve Bannon, former head of Breitbart News and campaign CEO for then Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, appears at a national security meeting with advisors at Trump Tower in New York. (AP / Evan Vucci, File)

The news that Steve Bannon, executive chairman of Breitbart News, would be chief strategist to President Donald Trump triggered a corporate exodus from the alt-right publication. Several high-profile companies (including Kellogg, Warby Parker, Allstate and BMW) have pulled their ads from the website, and some online ad exchanges (including AppNexus) have barred Breitbart from their services, in an attempt to distance themselves from an organization that’s widely criticized for spreading racist, xenophobic and sexist misinformation.

While Breitbart might now have lost some advertising dollars, it still has another source of revenue to rely on: its online shop, which runs off software from Canadian e-commerce giant Shopify.

Shopify has taken criticism in recent weeks for continuing to do business with Breitbart. An online petition has collected over 21,000 signatures in attempt to sway the e-commerce software company to reconsider. So far, Shopify is unmoved, stating: “If a merchant is selling products legally in the jurisdiction in which they are operating, they can use our software.”

From a legal and even an ethical perspective, Shopify has no reason to sever ties with Breitbart. From a client relations perspective, however, the choice is far more complicated. Shopify likely doesn’t want to alienate customers that don’t like that it helps an organization like Breitbart make money. At the same time, it likely doesn’t want to create the impression that it’s in the business of judging its clients’ moral worth. We spoke with experts on how to proceed, should a company find itself at ideological odds with a client—and in the crosshairs of the rest of its clientele.

Check your corporate values

“In Shopify’s situation, if they want to stand by a mandate—that merchants can use their service, so long as they’re selling something legally—that’s fine. But when you have a mandate that broad, you have to be prepared for backlash.

“I think you need to make sure that you believe in your client’s brand as much as you believe in yours. The companies that have pulled away from Breitbart have not necessarily done so because of a political difference; they did so because they don’t believe in the organization’s mandate or brand.

“Sometimes you commit to a partnership, and realize later on that it’s not a fit. At that point, you have to decide if it makes sense to move forward with the client, or have a conversation. I would say the risk is bigger if you continue with a client that has difference in values, which could create backlash with other clients. For instance, in my work, as a PR agency, it’s all about perception, about public opinion and public trust. And I can tell you that working with clients whose brand and values align with yours makes it much easier to convey that trust and integrity, to all your current and potential clients.”

—Shauna MacDonald, principal and founder of Brookline PR, Calgary

Don’t make a decision based on protests alone

“In general, we want to be cautious about doing business in a way that’s influenced by politics and ideology. It’s good that we can set that sort of thing aside and engage in trade with other countries, for example, that choose to run their countries differently from ours. It’s good that we can say, ‘I’m happy to do business with people I wouldn’t vote for.’

“On the other hand, there’s a difference between mere difference of opinion and doing business with people who you believe are guilty of real wrongdoing. I think there’s enough reason to have serious doubt about Breitbart, for example. It’s a kind of organization that’s not a positive influence in the world, regardless of what your political affiliations are. And so I have a lot more sympathy for the idea that organizations probably should want to distance themselves from that one.

“Dropping a client because of a protest is not in itself a wise move. Consumer protests tend not to last that long and tend not to gather much steam. A company may say, ‘on the one hand, we have a bunch of people who say they’re cranky with us; on the other, we have a valuable customer who brings in X in revenue.’ You know their business and the sensitivities of your clients, but you certainly don’t want to get the reputation of letting politics get in the way of business, or being a fairweather friend.”

Chris MacDonald, professor of business ethics at Ryerson University, Toronto

Accept that someone will end up unhappy

“When faced with a dilemma like this one, companies should do something called a stakeholder analysis. What’s the impact upon the different stakeholders? There’s not a simple, automatic answer, and the considerations are different for everyone. Sometimes it’s the commercial interest of the company that dictates what you do; sometimes it’s whether you’re in or out of legal compliance; sometimes it’s protecting the environment; sometimes it’s satisfying certain political interests. You’re looking at which stakeholders am I going to satisfy, and which ones am I going to gore their ox? But you’re not going to make everyone happy—that’s not what it’s about.”

—David Nitkin, president of EthicScan, Toronto