You’re in a Political Candidate’s Crosshairs. Can You Respond?

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.


Donna Brazile’s new book on Clinton campaign carries lesson on influencing target audiences

Buried toward the end of last Sunday’s lengthy Washington Post article on Donna Brazile’s new book about the 2016 presidential election are a few cautionary paragraphs that business professionals in a variety of disciplines should heed. While persons working in communications, marketing, community relations and government relations will find the tale particularly relevant, others may find value as well.

“Brazile writes that Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook and his lieutenants were so obsessed with voter data and predictive analytics that they ‘missed the big picture,'” The Post reports. “They knew how to size up voters not by meeting them and finding out what they cared about, what moved their hearts and stirred their souls, but by analyzing their habits,” Brazile writes. “You might be able to persuade a handful of Real Simple magazine readers who drink gin and tonics to change their vote to Hillary, but you had not necessarily made them enthusiastic enough to want to get up off the couch and go to the polls.”

There’s no arguing that the era of Big Data is upon us. I won’t pretend to know a fraction of what I could or should about our improved abilities to gather information via the Internet of things to predict user behavior, identify emerging trends and otherwise confront societal challenges. Our economy and our lives increasingly will be shaped by practical applications manifested in this new era.

Nonetheless, as Donna Brazile’s critique suggests, one runs a risk in relying too heavily on data and failing to engage with people directly. Focus groups, mall intercepts and town hall meetings are but a few examples of methods that long have been employed with great benefit to conduct consumer research, test messages and materials, gauge attitudes and surface (and answer) lingering questions. As we adopt new tools in social media space — microtargeting advertisements, for example — we should be mindful to keep at the ready in our toolkits many of these proven practices to connect with audiences and stakeholders where (to Brazile’s point) they actually think and feel.

A relevant story from my own experience was a conversation with a social media practitioner about ways to advance policy goals with congressional staff. As a former congressional press secretary myself, I sought to make the point that supportive editorials (in national and local newspapers alike) are a useful means to advance policy goals in congressional offices. I was less than encouraged when the social media practitioner on this particular team replied that he didn’t read editorial pages. When I see Donna Brazile’s take on the data-focused aspects of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, I’m reminded of this conversation.

Good messages and initiatives don’t do much for you if you fail to effectively leverage the channels and means to get the attention of your target audience. At the same time, even the right channels aren’t likely to do much for you if your message doesn’t “move hearts” and “stir souls.” Now, executing both effectively …. THAT’s a formula for success.

November 10, 2017