You Have a Candidate, Not a Company!
The gasps were audible – as were a few snickers.
That’s what I heard not long ago when I told a gathering of senior corporate executives that that they should stop thinking of their brands as companies and start thinking of them as candidates.
What did I mean by that? Glad you asked.
What I’ve learned over more than 35 years as a strategic communications professional is how little people truly understand the communications process – especially businesspeople. A huge percentage of failed business initiatives – I’d actually say a majority of them – can be traced to basic failures of communications.
Disastrous M&A deals. Botched branding and re-branding campaigns. Labor blowups. The list goes on. All victims of caustic communications efforts.
What is especially tragic is that there is so ample a reservoir of communications models that work.
The one group that is perhaps the most deeply skilled in communicating is the relatively small coterie of veterans of high-level political communications – national election campaigns, policy battles, regulatory advocacy, etc. These seasoned political communicators understand not only how to craft messages that motivate and mobilize their target market, but, more importantly, also how to position their candidates or issues in ways that build committed communities of support.
Knowing how to engage, educate and enlist their support is crucial to success in political campaigns. What smart executives are beginning to see is that the same is true in the business realm – especially in the digital age.
For me, this isn’t an academic discussion; my partners and I live in this world every day. We use approaches honed over decades of success in the political sphere to shape public opinion and market strategy for CEOs, founders, investors and philanthropists.
For more than a decade and a half, we’ve helped some of the world’s most recognized brands help mold public opinion, inform the media conversation, win legislative fights and investor relations battles, manage crises, issues and litigation and expand across markets and borders. So, yes, we have a pretty strong point of view about what works a nd what doesn’t.
But before I get into some of the specific strategies that work, let’s usher the elephant out of the room: Most businesspeople hate politics and politicians, so why on Earth would I expect them to emulate them in any way?
I get it, but please hear me out: I am not making an appeal for politics nor for politicians. In fact, while my partners and I all have political backgrounds, our firm is deliberately NOT involved in partisan politics.
But I don’t necessarily agree that business people hate politics per se. What people in business – including us – hate is what so much of the political process has become. The pettiness, the personal destruction, the massive waster of time, energy and money are enough to make you want to scream.
But the good news is that, while there is a lot to dislike about the policy process, there’s also a lot of good that comes out of it. The things that have enabled the vast majority of the global economic expansion of the last two decades have been directly or indirectly due to the policy process.
My colleagues and I are diverse in our backgrounds and views, we share a deep belief in the power and potential of entrepreneurs and corporations engaged in responsible commerce to create broad economic and social good, and that’s how we approach our client engagements.
We use best practices from the political world to help companies, associations and large nonprofits succeed for their stakeholders – their customers, employees, investors, members, donors and the broader communities in which they operate.
That’s how we know for sure that the system works if you work it the right way.
So down to brass tacks: How should business put the candidate approach to work?
First by understanding that we live in an information democracy where high-profile companies, causes and individuals are now candidates competing for public attention, and, ultimately, for public support.
Every day, people vote for or against them in a variety of ways: Consumers vote with purchases. Social media participants vote with likes or tweets. Investors vote with trades. Employees vote with productivity and morale. Policymakers vote with regulatory decisions. The media vote with news reports. Activists vote with protests.
All of these constituencies and actions impact your organization’s revenues, profits, reputation and, ultimately, its enterprise value, whether you are a corporate giant or a corner store.
Winning in this environment requires the kind of strategic approach that has always been the hallmark of savvy political communicators.
Let’s make this more concrete with an example: Let’s say a development group wants to build a new convention center with an attached hotel and shopping mall. The project involves a public/private partnership that includes substantial private investment, some public funding and some changes in zoning or land use laws.
This project would provide major public benefits like new jobs, redevelopment of a blighted area and an expanded tax base. Many business people assume that the facts will speak for themselves.
Wrong. Getting this initiative approved will require a major communications effort to make sure the public truly understands the cost-benefit payoff – and the pitfalls of not approving it. Project sponsors will need to craft a campaign strategy based on in-depth research, sound messaging and tight tactical execution.
And it will involve directly challenging the opponents – something many in business find distasteful.
The “magic” in all this is how you effectively, efficiently and ethically integrate and execute all the various moving parts. Far easier said than done, but an absolute necessity in today’s hyper-charged public environment.
So to those business leaders who shrink away from idea of communicating more like a candidate that a traditional company because it makes you uncomfortable, I have one question:
Do you want to be comfortable or do you want to be successful?
Written by Eddie Reeves.
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