This blog post first appeared on Forbes.com
It’s time to reflect upon what we can learn from business involvement in politics during 2012. There is rich material for us to learn from, and I could write about much more than this column allows. However, I have prioritized those concerns that apply to the widest swath of businesses possible. In other words, the big picture.
Hang Together – Which implies: coordination and organization among businesses.
As Darrell Shull, COO of the Business Industry Political Action Committee (BIPAC) told me, “Some are trying to divide the business community over the fiscal cliff situation, but there is not a bit of daylight there, we are sticking together.” He is right on these high profile issues. The business community prides itself on its coalitions, joint policy statements and white papers, all of which are helpful and do show a degree of unity. But when one member of an industry is targeted for lack of political correctness, industry partners scatter.
My colleague Dr. Kelton Rhoads reminds us: “Saul Alinsky knew that as long as businesses saw themselves as are separate entities, they’re easily picked off, one by one. Businesses need to stop seeing rival businesses as their prime competitors. Recognize them as fellow entrepreneurs and allies. Other powers are eroding the very foundation of business; wake up and recognize who they are. Show some solidarity when your business competitor is targeted for being politically incorrect. The business community needs to learn what “community” means. Organize, organize, organize. ‘Hang together,’ as Ben Franklin said, ‘or hang separately.’”
What happens when a member of the business community is targeted for being politically incorrect? What happened to the companies who dropped their membership in the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) due to ALEC’s involvement in state voter ID laws and other social issues deemed unacceptable by far left groups? Who stuck by them?
As one PR Director for a national chain restaurant told me, “Our industry, like any other, is very competitive and we follow each other, copying successful products and offerings. So in that aspect we acknowledge each other. But look out when it comes to being attacked by an outside group—-no one will stand by you. It’s really shameful when you look at the big picture, when you realize what’s at stake.”
The Bottom Line: When the business community starts sticking together like unions do (unions tend to support each other regardless of the type of union being challenged), they will have more persuasive clout. For now, many can be picked off “one by one.”
Understand the Difference Between Voter Engagement Tools and Political Persuasion. OK, I am going on a bit of a rant here, so stick with me. Political engagement tools such as websites dedicated to employee voter registration and issue information are nice and help your brand. Who can criticize the efforts of a company to provide employee voter registration tools and encourage good citizenship? But if those tools were so effective, if the business community was really moving its employees to cast a vote based on the impact to their jobs, I contend that the election outcome might have been different.
What we have is a gap of trust and communications, not a gap in the tools. For example, business trade organizations provided more voter registration and get out the vote tools and issue communications to their members than ever before. The U.S. Chamber’s web site, Vote for Jobs, was one example. The National Association of Manufacturers did a great job of making sure manufacturing was in the presidential race conversation at every opportunity, equipping members with a NAM Election Center web site with many tools for increased involvement. And the pioneer for providing these tools to the business community, the Business Industry Political Action Committee, (BIPAC), created get out the vote tools, candidate voter guides, and weekly election updates to over 6,300 companies and associations. They and other business associations did all they could to empower their member organizations.
BIPAC’s research validates that employees value this type of election information, and that they trust political information provided by their employer. But they can also get very partisan messages online from other sources with which they more closely identify. So there is a disconnect. They may value the employer provided information, but until they identify themselves as a free enterprise voter, there is still work to do.
The Bottom Line: Voter empowerment tools do not translate to voter persuasion. What are you doing to build trust and emotional allegiance to your issues?
Earn Trust Before You Talk – An unprecedented number of business owners and leaders reminded their employees not only to vote this year, but to vote for Mitt Romney and Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate. They explained the ramifications to their bottom line if President Obama was re-elected without a GOP controlled Senate to stop certain proposals.
I personally think those types of conversations are long, long overdue (regardless of the political cause, by the way. I’m for more involvement by everyone!), so kudos to those courageous executives. However, your employees don’t believe you. As one executive at a national trade association reminded me “Amy, we can provide all the information to educate our member company employees, to share how the election of certain candidates would affect their business, but if the employees don’t trust the top guy, it doesn’t matter.” He is so right.
I’ll never forget an audience member confession at one of my speeches which confirmed this. He said that his CEO broke with the tradition of silence during elections and sent a memo to salaried employees, reminding them that certain candidates for the state Supreme Court were more preferable for their business concerns than others. My audience member, a VP of Government Relations for this company, reported that he was told by fellow executives: “If he wants us to vote for a certain candidate, I’m voting for the other guy.” That’s an apt example of unintended consequences, isn’t it?
The Bottom Line: Senior company leaders have to demonstrate that everyone is “in this together.” The reality is that your employees do not see the negative impact of public policy on the executive suite. You need to demonstrate that what happens to them happens to all of you, that you are in this together. But they don’t see that, and thus they don’t trust what you tell them about the issues and how elections have consequences.
Understand the Legislative Communications Funnel – Although the best way to influence is to deal directly with the decision maker (members of Congress or your state legislators), you have to go through their staff, especially on Capitol Hill. Research findings from Dr. David Rehr of GWU’s Graduate School of Political Management and Columbia Books is required reading. The most surprising finding?
Congressional staff look to other congressional staff for insight on critical issues. While some may consider this a prime example of following the lemmings, it illustrates one of the main principles of persuasion — that in times of uncertainly, we look to “many similar others” for guidance. Despite the reams of expert opinion and policy analysis available to staff (which they do thankfully also use) they still look to each other for guidance.
The Bottom Line: To successfully influence, one element is knowing how your prospect receives and prioritizes information. Strive to have your message heard by all pertinent congressional offices and staff who can sway your issue. People talk.
If You Commit Corporate Treasury Dollars to a Super PAC, be Transparent – Do what the CEO of Scotts Miracle Gro James Hagedorn did, and explain in plain English what you are doing, and why you are committing corporate funds to a particular cause or candidate. Scotts had a lot of credibility in this effort because they had publicly endorsed Ohio’s Democratic Governor, Ted Strickland, in his race against GOP candidate (now Governor) John Kasich. It showed that the company’s leaders put some rational thought into the process rather than allocating endorsements and money based solely on political affiliations.
The Bottom Line: If it is important enough for your corporate dollars to funnel into a super PAC, make sure there is a thoughtful strategy, metrics and accountability measure available to you as a contributor.
P.S. If You Commit Personal or Corporate Treasury Dollars to a Super PAC, Do Your Homework We like to think that those with the purse strings do a lot of analysis and thinking about these decisions, but the tons of money given to Karl Rove’s Super PAC clearly showed this is not the case. InUnderdog Edge, I wrote that powerful people have less time to think, to reflect, and thus make snap decisions based on advice and their “gut.” This was a flawless example of that principle.
Rove was able to convince hundreds of individuals and organizations to contribute to his super PAC, American Crossroads, based solely on his reputation. His track record of helping twice elect a then-unpopular president contributed to his influence cachet. Rove’s operations, American Crossroads and Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, backed Mitt Romney with $127 million on more than 80,000 television spots. Ten of the twelve Senate candidates and four of the nine House candidates that the Rove groups supported also lost their races.
The Bottom Line: Context, candidates, and strategy change from campaign to campaign. Success in one arena does not necessarily translate to another. Note to future super PAC contributors – think twice when David Axelrod and David Plouffe ask you to contribute to their super PACs.