Let’s start with a quick poll. What will be the dominant story this week and the next biggest story? Will they be 1) Kim Jong-un meeting with President Trump, 2) celebrities and pardons, 3) celebrities and suicide, 4) DACA, 5) Taliban ceasefire, 6) opioids, 7) hacking, 8) Facebook, 9) leakers, 10) Putin, 11) China, 12) Mueller investigation, 13) trade and tariffs, 14) Roseanne, 15) Uber and Lyft, 16) Elon Musk, 17) AT&T, 18) Disney, 19) school safety, 20) professional sports, 21) ill celebrities or 22) something else? Seriously, please comment with your first and second choice. Unless there is an exceptional tragedy or celebrity curiosity, the odds are that the top stories will have political components. These stories dominate our attention as both real news and fake news. We are sometimes fascinated by them, their impact and the political lessons we can glean from them. We might even consider deploying some of these political tactics to help our business.
Whether you are a fan of President Trump or not, you probably marvel at his ability to generate support, shift attention where he wants it and so heavily saturate the discussion that no one seems to have the energy to debate the issue anymore. His approaches (practitioners might call them strategies and tactics) can be very effective if you’re a developer, celebrity or politician. If you are in a major business with major investments, lengthy project payouts and significant exposure such as energy, transportation, chemicals, mining or manufacturing, you may want to put less emphasis on these current trends and impulses.
Have you ever watched a news program and been amazed by a politician or political hack’s ability to avoid the difficult issues being tossed at him or her? Did you find yourself wishing that you could avoid consequences in the same very effective manner? If a reporter calls, would you like to dismissively address all the questions without answering any of them? If activists are protesting your new facility, have you been tempted to say, “throw the bums out”?
If your competitor is capturing the market have you considered exposing their criminal behavior and calling for an investigation of their questionable practices? Have you considered being so sensational in your social media posts and public persona that you draw millions of followers and then convert those followers into paying customers? Do you consider fake news and bots an expedient means of capturing public attention and support?
If you’ve thought about or done any of these things, you’re not alone. It’s likely that there are many other business executives who shared similar thoughts and ultimately chose not to pursue them. But a few still question why we shouldn’t use political tactics to build our business reputation, advance our business and get what we want.
Many companies recruit and utilize political talent in their government relations and communications campaigns. There’s a lengthy history of overlap between government and the private sector in the United States. In fact, when your company is attacked in the same vicious way that politicians, parties and government experience, it can be helpful to bring those political lessons into countering the assault, but you need to be careful how aggressively you use their political tactics.
Businesses and political campaigns have different purposes and measures of success. Most businesses are driven by providing a favorable return to their investors and having a favorable impact on their stakeholders. In most situations, the business intends to do this indefinitely. Things that damage the return to investors and relationship with stakeholders are considered threats to the company, including the company’s reputation and social license to operate.
On the other hand, campaigns are primarily about winning, getting your way, pushing your point of view and locking-in sufficient support to achieve the majority or plurality you need. Political tactics need to bob and weave to respond to a constantly changing landscape and they often use tactics that are vilified by the politicians themselves. While some politicians are very ethical and highly admired as statesmen, they still must win. This puts an enormous emphasis on shaping public opinion over the short periods of time needed to win elections. A politician can afford to offend some people to solidify the support of others and then conduct a campaign that variously creates infighting, alienation, and enthusiasm in different groups resulting in an election victory.
For most businesses, misuse of these political tactics could cause a crisis that must be managed and lasting harm to the brand. Stakeholder trust would erode, people would voice their opposition in government hearings, stockholder meetings and sales through word of mouth. While you can learn political lessons and even use political tactics to support your legitimate business interests, you need to balance this with conducting your business with integrity and a view toward maintaining a positive long-term reputation. Don’t sacrifice your brand, reputation, and stakeholder trust for a short-term, politically expedient fix.
Well then, if it OK for businesses to observe politicians and campaigns to learn political lessons, what political tactics should businesses avoid? There are five political tactics that you should either use very sparingly or completely avoid in your business communications and encounters. They are marked by either being excessively confrontational or deceptive. They are attacking competitors, attacking reporters, attacking opponents, spinning stories to manipulate perceptions and deliberate use of fake news:
- Attacking Competitors – If you attack your competitor, they will likely respond in kind. Also, you are part of the same industry, facing many of the same issues. If you tear each other down, who’s going to give you the benefit of the doubt?
- Attacking Reporters – The adage of not picking a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel is still true. If you take the time to get to know some journalists, you will find that many are very bright and capable and they are as dedicated to their mission of providing the truth as you are to making money or whatever else motivates you. If you work with them ethically, they can help you share your story. If you try to deceive or hinder their work, they will figure it out and report the full story, including what you did that was illegal, inappropriate, or unethical.
- Attacking Opponents – If this one isn’t obvious to you, just look at the years of fighting between heavy industries and environmental activists. The more business fought environmental protestors the more effectively environmentalists used it to publicize their cause, raise funds and increase the opposition. Assume your opponents have a different, but valid perspective and open communication so you have a better chance of cooperation than opposition. This does not have to be a zero-sum game. it is well worth the effort to find a win-win and simply opening a constructive dialogue can reduce the damage.
- Spin – Honesty and transparency matter. As soon as a company or individual spokesperson for a company becomes known for spinning stories, they are distrusted, discounted and marginalized. People and reporters are very astute about attempts to spin. Many perceive this seemingly innocent attempt to slant the story in your favor as deception. You’ll get far more understanding through honest, ethical attempts to communicate than you will through spin.
- Fake News – Governments, hackers, fringe advocates and online “entrepreneurs” have successfully used fake news to influence public opinion, disrupt and make money. There are a wealth of tools, bots, and channels to distribute and promote fake news. It has become increasingly difficult to detect and it may be tempting to use fake news to promote your position on issues and your business. The odds of getting caught publishing fake news may even seem to be slight and you could always deny that you knew it was fake, but you can’t predict what future concerns, detection methods, and laws will hold for fake news purveyors. In addition, fake news has been further infected by bad actors using increasingly sophisticated weaponized media that can inflict major damage on a company’s reputation. Eventually fake new with weaponized media may rise to a major crisis that will demand everyone’s attention. Do you really want to risk getting caught up in this and ruin the long-term future of your company to gain a little unfair advantage now?
While we understand how a business may want to skirt around some of these issues from time to time. If these political tactics are used extensively they may ultimately be the downfall of the business. Sure, there are exceptions to this rule just as there was public support for Nero against the Christians in ancient Rome and territories that embraced Genghis Khan’s conquest, but they don’t last. For the long-term business, a reputation for honesty, integrity, and performance is very important. A significant reputation hit can damage a company for years. Why risk a reputation crisis for political expediency?