DON’T PANIC: A Guide to the New Political Normal
U.S. Vice President and Chair, Public Affairs and Crisis
Washingtonians woke up on November 9, 2016, bleary-eyed and stunned—Republicans and Democrats alike—to the realization that political turmoil and uncertainty had arrived in American politics with a bang. U.S. corporate executives also woke up that morning to a transformed environment, with new risks and opportunities for their businesses and their brands. What does a Trump victory mean for the company? Republicans had campaigned on new infrastructure spending, lower taxes and less regulation. That should mean a sharp increase in demand!
Trump also said he would cancel NAFTA, reduce immigration, and shame companies that outsource jobs. Would he tweet about my company? How should we position ourselves on the deep, emotional issues now on center stage in U.S. politics and culture?
Seven months into the Trump Presidency, politics has become slightly more predictable. In Donald Rumsfeld’s words, we now know what we don’t know; predictable uncertainty is our new normal. Through our own experience supporting companies and brands in Trump’s America, Burson-Marsteller has distilled seven rules of the road to help companies navigate uncertain political terrain—pursuing new opportunity while minimizing new risks to their brands.
1. Get comfortable with the uncertainty.
Immediately ahead this fall are issues with serious direct and indirect consequences for brands and their corporate stewards. Will divided Republicans lift the debt ceiling or default? Will they pass tax reform? What is next with Special Counsel’s Mueller’s investigation of Russia and the Trump campaign? Who might President Trump go after next? Where is the next battlefield in the culture wars?
2. News has been weaponized. Prepare your defenses.
News has become both an offensive and a defensive weapon, deployed lightning-fast through social media. The risks arising from uncertainty and from weaponized news have the same response: preparation. Research and understand your brand’s placement relevant to politically hot topics of the day, and how that will resonate with your consumers and key stakeholders. Monitor the news environment carefully. And make sure you have the fundamentals of crisis communications nailed down in advance.
3. Reputation matters as much with governments as brand does with consumers. Build and protect yours.
Your company will have a reputation in political markets—from Washington to Brussels—that is connected to but distinct from your brand. Consumers’ views of Chick-fil-a may focus on the quality of their chicken sandwiches and service. Political animals in Washington are far more attuned to accusations that the company is hostile to same-sex marriage.
A company needs to build a reputation well before it can lean on one. Educate key Washington stakeholders—media, think tanks, NGOs, administration officials, legislators and their staffs, and other stakeholders—about the company behind the brand. Tell them who you are, what you do, and what you value. Do this before you need to ask for something.
4. Relationships are essential.
The audiences you care about in Washington and other political centers are generally small communities. Relationships and trust matter. Just as with reputations, you should build and tend to them well before you need them. Having your own presence in Washington is important—you don’t want to be that relative who only visits at Thanksgiving. Offer stakeholders something they value, such as your company’s insights and experience on policy issues they care about. And always engage elected officials in their home districts as well as in Washington.
5. Stay focused on what matters.
In the political world of 2017, the white-hot media spotlight leaps from Obamacare to Russia to Charlottesville to taxes to the opioid crisis. Companies and brand managers have the luxury of sustaining their own focus on what matters most to them. Use that. Define your priorities in the policy space, develop and maintain a core narrative for each, and enforce message discipline, starting at the top. Do not chase emotional, shiny objects if they are not connected to your objectives. Always work toward your end goal.
6. Stay close to your core values and those of your consumers.
Brands are targets. Political actors can break through the noise and connect their own messages emotionally with the broader American public—positively and negatively—by lashing abstract ideas to well-known brands. President Trump has mastered this tactic on Twitter (see Carrier, Nordstrom, Merck, and Ford.)
Building on the research you did according to rule #2, ensure your company’s positions on politically hot topics are fully aligned with your consumers’ and key stakeholders’ values. Patagonia’s leadership on the preservation of federal lands, for example, is fully aligned. No vulnerability there. Budweiser’s Super Bowl ad celebrating immigration was not.
7. DON’T PANIC
Always good advice. If you research, plan, prepare, and stay focused, you will always have the tools you need to navigate political crises and opportunities successfully. The public spotlight is exhilarating, and it is terrifying. When it falls on you, do what soldiers do when they come under fire: fall back on your training, remember your preparation, and rely on the people in the fight with you.