Earlier this year I blogged with regard to a New York Times interview with McDonald’s CEO Chris Kempczinski, calling attention to the discussion of corporate positioning on social and political issues. Interestingly, the Times has done a deeper dive on this subject in a Nov. 28 article headlined “Red Brands and Blue Brands: Is hyper-partisanship coming for corporate America?” It’s a worthwhile read, particularly for business communicators. If one hasn’t already established criteria and thresholds for when corporate leaders should speak out, it presents a strong argument for doing so. The article also makes it clear that oftentimes there will be consequences for the substance of a corporation’s position on any given issue. Forewarned is forearmed, as the saying goes, and the article is appropriately cautionary. Kudos to reporter David Gelles for his work.
No doubt a lot of organizations these days are having to determine when and when not to speak out on social, political and other issues that gain prominence in the news. That’s setting aside for a moment the question of WHAT organizations might say publicly, if they decide to do so. In this past Sunday’s New York Times, McDonald’s CEO Chris Kempczinski did a pretty good job, I feel, of setting the boundaries for hot topics that McDonald’s will and won’t comment on. Asked “Where is the company on voting rights?”, Mr. Kempczinski’s reply included the following: “Is it either directly in our industry — which is an obvious one that we would comment on — or does it go specifically to the pillars that we’ve said are going to matter to us? So we’ve talked about jobs and opportunity. We’ve talked about helping communities in crisis. We’ve talked about planet. And we’ve talked about supporting local farmers and ranchers. Those are areas that we’ve said are specific to our business where we feel like we’ve got a role to play. If it’s outside of that, then there has to be a really good reason that us saying something can also be part of the solution.”
“Does it go specifically to the pillars that we’ve said are going to matter to us?”— McDonald’s CEO Chris Kempczinski
There’s more, but that’s the core of his answer. The interview doesn’t include a logical follow-up question, i.e., “Pillars aside, what do you do in instances where a portion of your workforce wants or expects the company to speak up?” From a messaging and reputation management standpoint, I believe this topic is going to get increasingly interesting as more and more young people who’ve grown up with social media and put their views on public display rise to the ranks of organizational leadership.
There are some good case studies and best-practice conversations to be had here, I’m sure.
Upon joining the Nuclear Energy Institute as media relations director some years ago — and running smack dab into the significant amount of jargon unique to the industry — one of the first things I did was ask a member of the design team to create a “Death to Acronyms” sign for me. He came back with a highly creative, 8″ x 10″ sign featuring skull-and-crossbones lettering that I hung on my wall for anyone and everyone entering my office to see. The sign served as a constant reminder to me — and I believe as a challenge to others — that effective communications hinged on our willingness and determination to take highly technical information endemic to the industry and convert it into concepts and messaging understandable by the layman.
This belief that technical matters need not remain technical is why this Dave Lieber column in The Dallas Morning News strikes a chord with me. Dave’s lament, “Translating ERCOT jargon is like rolling a boulder uphill,” is one that every communications professional — no matter what the industry or organization — needs to keep foremost in mind daily. Whether the deliverable is talking points, a news release, a tweet, a video, a fact sheet, media training, an infographic — it is incumbent upon communicators to translate information from the technical side of the house so that it is digestible by the general public. If we fail to do that, we’re not doing our jobs and merit the criticism voiced in this Morning News column.
If one simply is regurgitating what one is told without making the mental effort to ask oneself whether it is understandable and, if not, to make it so, then one needn’t be on the payroll. This responsibility is and always will be one of the fundamental aspects of media relations, public relations and marketing. Period.
Energy sector executives, government affairs representatives and communication leaders would be well advised to read this past Sunday’s business section article in The Washington Post headlined, “Trump, 2020 hopefuls are calling out U.S. firms.” It speaks to one of those sector-agnostic phenomena that is as relevant to one industry, and company, as the next. This phenomenon, as reported by The Post, centers on presidential candidates “directly challenging U.S. businesses in a way that historians and communication experts say underscores a new era.”
The practical takeaways relative to this development – which arguably is as applicable to state-level candidates as it is national ones – are twofold:
- It is essential to have at the ready a set of talking points that speak to the company’s mission and culture broadly, and other sets of talking points that speak to a company’s particular “hot button” issues and to major news developments that transcend different business sectors.
- It is useful as the election season intensifies to compile a record of relevant votes taken and/or statements made by political candidates relative to your company and industry.
With regard to talking points, it will be far easier to respond in real time to media inquiries and to craft appropriate tweets if one’s organization has kept current a general set of messages that align with its mission and brand. In this same vein, if the organization is siting or otherwise supporting development of an energy facility (think natural gas pipeline or wind farm, for example), one can anticipate that political candidates at one level or another are going to weigh in and necessitate something more than a “no comment.” The article in The Post includes good counsel from a communication expert who advises an organization that is attacked not to escalate the situation. Still, organizations fail to defend their reputation at their own peril.
Regular readers of The Washington Post witness a drumbeat of commentary criticizing Dominion Energy, much but not all of it from activists. If nothing else, the commentary is a barometer for impending criticism from political candidates. And beyond needing messages on issues unique to any given company, societal flash points like sexual harassment and the #MeToo movement, privacy, corporate salaries and “Buy American” are all worthy of a customized set of messages in their own right.
With regard to politicians’ voting records and statements, a compilation has value as a common reference point within an organization and as a resource for external stakeholders. In the face of criticism from a political candidate, it would be useful to know what if any pattern that candidate has from a voting or advocacy standpoint.
Developing materials and a range of messages like this can be tedious, but the time invested will be well worth it if and when an inquiry or criticism comes that requires quick response.
Even in the digital age, news releases matter as a means of shaping and articulating key messages. And especially in the digital age, one could argue, message prioritization matters more than ever.
Not to pick on the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, but the March 14 news release on its latest Reliability Leadership Summit strikes me as a prime example of what NOT to do when writing a news release.
The lede (sic) states, in essence, “We had a meeting; X number of people attended; we talked about stuff.”
Accurate. Noteworthy. And not the message-centric construct that invites the reader to delve more deeply into the subject matter. For those who do, the news release’s second paragraph compounds the problem with a chronological listing of speakers. No driving of a specific theme; no identification of a major achievement; no highlighting of a key hurdle to overcome.
Deeper in the news release, we gain insight into one likely reason that it’s constructed as it is: there’s a bevy of meaty and complex topics on the table, including “current and emerging risks to the reliability and security of the grid; the rapid shift in generation resources; accelerated technology deployment; regulatory and policymaking in an era of unprecedented bulk power system change; reliably integrating record levels of renewable generation into electricity markets; and assuring adequate fuel supplies for power plants.”
I get that. Still, a key responsibility of the communicator drafting the news release is to sift through the complexity and find the theme or two that aligns with the organization’s brand (even when the organization is a not-for-profit regulator). That’s the information that needs to be in the lede. That can be a challenging task, particularly under a heavy work load and tight time constraints. In my view, however, it’s a must-do, not an option, to effectively enhance the organization’s reputation and provide journalists, if not others, with the substance on which you’d like them to focus.
In fairness to NERC, its Dec. 20, 2018 news release on the 2018 Long-Term Reliability Assessment is a better product. This Feb. 5th news release from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce similarly strikes me as one that effectively drives key messages.
Getting eyeballs on a news release is enough of a challenge these days, and a topic for another day. That makes it all the more important that the news release prioritizes information that actually makes it newsworthy.