The need to protect a business reputation has critically changed in the face of today’s electrically charged political environment. We’ve faced senators, congressmen, and other government officials responding to lightning fast social media campaigns and aligning themselves to one side of an issue before a serious discussion can be undertaken. “Likes,” viral videos, and tweets that involve certain industries or businesses create crises in the blink of an eye and consumers can quickly become antagonists in such a super-charged environment.
The immediate and public nature of this government commentary has led to a new focus for communication professionals. Activities within social media require constant scrutiny and demand quick responses by executive leadership teams. Failure to monitor and react to what is going on in these venues can easily result in reputational damage and upset customers. Chief Communications Officers need to develop a close working relationship internally with government affairs, externally with industry associations, and ideally with the government itself via public affairs officers.
The Rise Of Industry Advocacy
Industry associations have long been a part of the communicator’s arsenal, quietly influencing government activity behind the scenes on behalf of their members. Recent government regulations and activities have resulted in a greater need to connect within industries and partner with competitors. Issues of privacy for citizens vs. national security have led to a tension between government agencies and corporations.
The question of individual rights vs. public good was at the heart of Apple v. the Department of Justice last summer. The case centered on whether Apple should have aided the government in unlocking an iPhone owned by the assailant in an attack in San Bernardino, Calif. in 2015. Apple felt its responsibility to their consumers’ right to privacy outweighed the desirability to aid the FBI in thwarting potential future attacks.
Trade groups, representing the thousands of software companies, smartphone makers, and network security firms, were vocal in their opposition to aiding the investigation. They feared a precedent of providing the government a “back door key” into a personal technology device. Utilizing trade groups as spokesmen for the industry not only provided support for Apple, but also allowed the attitudes and concerns of their competitors to be voiced without requiring corporate names be attached to either side of a dicey issue. Paramount during the entire standoff was avoiding consumer backlash as it was unclear on which side of the issue their customers would ultimately fall.
Collective trade association statements demonstrated the power of industry solidarity in combating government overreach and maintaining public understanding. They voiced support for ensuring safety for citizens, but highlighted the dangers in governmental power reaching into such a private area. Using these associations as a front, the technology industry voiced their opposition without singling out any other specific company, thus protecting their individual reputations and strengthening consumer’s overall brand perceptions.
Connecting With Government
While partnering with industry associations magnifies a company’s voice, independently connecting with government public affairs officers allows for quieter, personal relationships. These can help provide protection against getting blindsided by government operations.
In 2010, BAE Systems, a major U.K. and U.S. aerospace and defense contractor, was charged with bribing country officials to secure military orders. Fortunately, the company’s communications team was able to reach out to both governments’ offices of public affairs, having partnered with those working internally on government affairs in the past. By being forewarned, they were provided enough time to craft a thoughtful response which helped minimize damage to the corporation’s reputation. However, these cordial, professional relationships weren’t established overnight. Although it took time to establish trust, these groups of communications professionals could work together even during an antagonistic period. BAE Systems was able to take the ethical and monetary whack with minimum reputational damage and negative customer reaction.
Integration Within Your Organization
Everyone in an organization has a shared goal: advancing the organization’s mission and maximizing the returns on that mission. This is best accomplished by strong coordination among all departments. It isn’t easy. Often you are battling against intra-organizational disputes. Still, if the shared goal is kept in mind, it is doable. A natural place to start is with marketing, communications, and internal government affairs. These teams should be able to work in concert, coordinating their messaging; increasing their impact. With luck, it can be an example for the rest of the organization.
Written by Jessica Patanges, Adjunct Professor, Independent Communications Consultant
Edited by Tasmina Chhugani, Medill IMC Class Of 2017