September 26, 2017
Message and Messenger Matter Now More Than Ever
Uncertainty and fear about the future deepens amongst most voters. From rising tensions with North Korea; passionate fights about First Amendment freedoms; to failed efforts to enact major Federal policy reforms; the common nerve that runs through them remains the power of words.
I have often lamented the decline of civil discourse. Words have meaning and with their meaning comes consequences. The coarseness and vitriol of many of the President’s comments over the past nine months have fanned voter divisions while simultaneously encumbering the authority of the Presidential bully pulpit. For example, in a high stakes confrontation with a society where “face-saving” is critical, he lambastes North Korea’s dictator for being “the little rocket man,” effectively bringing a rhetorical blunderbuss to a diplomatic quagmire requiring a scalpel. Inflammatory rhetoric compromises his mantle of leadership and denudes his powers of suasion. A just released Washington Post-ABC News poll found 66% of all Americans criticizing the President for having done more to divide the country than unite it. No thinking business person would ever employ such a strategy. Business success is largely predicated upon a daily pursuit of growing your consumer base rather than narrowing it. The power of the brand’s growth is normally tied to growing consumer confidence and trust.
I write this piece not to excoriate the President but rather to highlight where the true burden of leadership now firmly rests: with American business. We all know that words matter because words help to shape feelings and emotions. It will always be easier to change what someone thinks rather than what they feel. Emotions galvanize feelings into decision-making: about what we purchase and where we purchase it; for which sports teams we cheer; which house of worship we attend; where we choose to live; and yes, for whom we vote. That’s why brand identity is so important. Previous generations of business leaders worried about profit margins and shareholder value. While still critically important, both of those indices are today more likely than ever to be affected by public policy. As legislative professionals, we sell ideas in the public policy marketplace. Our pitch, our product, however worthy, is increasingly defined by the extraneous forces that I often refer to as “the context that makes a fact relevant.” In that regard, here are two notable items that highlight the importance of context.
- Trump is not a one-time phenomenon; the populist tide has been rising for years. His base sticks with him through scandal because it’s not just about him; it’s a movement defined against the so-called ruling class.
- Congressional Republicans get all tangled on health care and other issues because they don’t understand their voters . . . Trump may not be the culmination but merely a way station toward an ever purer populism.
- Trump is nominally pro-business. The next populism will probably take his ethnic nationalism and add an anti-corporate, anti-tech layer.
- As the tech behemoths intrude more deeply into daily life and our very minds, they will become a defining issue in American politics.
As the inexorable culmination of a decades long cheapening of business brand values (think Enron and the 2008 Wall Street meltdown), public trust in companies and brands becomes ever harder to win and sustain. Brands are increasingly affected by public discourse (think of the state of North Carolina and the so-called bathroom bill). The takeaway here is that how a brand engages with policy debates is more meaningful than ever before. Technology has made business practices and policy preferences a matter of permanent record; a not insignificant phenomenon when you realize that millennials make purchasing decisions very differently from their Grandparents. A long ago English teacher of mine encouraged me to “linger over words.” Sound advice then and now.
Yesterday’s Axios’ report contains a must read piece from our client the Economic Innovation Group entitled “One big thing: America’s great divide.” The report argues that economic prosperity is overwhelmingly concentrated in certain geographic areas, with the rich getting richer while the poor continue their slide towards hopelessness. The rising populist influence in both national Parties reflects this societal angst. For illustrative purposes, this is the undercurrent that fuels the ongoing fight between country club Republicans and their Chamber of Commerce allies and the insurgent, more militant wing defined by the Tea Party and the House Freedom Caucus. Today’s Alabama Senate GOP primary runoff highlights that divide. Similar schisms exist within the Democratic Party, whose minority status defers their own day of reckoning.
Here’s why this is relevant:
- Both Parties are experiencing painful realignment pressures with no end in sight. Traditional constituencies for support on everything from trade to labor to tax policy are no longer monolithic and are likely to become even less so in the future.
- More than Party loyalty, social, cultural, and economic identities are redefining how Americans engage around issues.
- The seismic pressures reshaping both Parties will redefine effective public policy management for a very long time. Media and public relations capabilities have become an absolutely equal if not greater partner than traditional lobbying when it comes to managing agendas.
- The era of “one-off” lobbying is over. Like human DNA, businesses will carry their historic policy engagement with them into future battles in the Congress and at statehouses and City Halls, as well as with their current and potential customers.
- In an era when the majority of all Americans believe that this President’s words and actions have exacerbated the divide amongst voters; when their confidence in the President and the Congress to address their most pressing needs continues to decline; when small acts of bipartisan cooperation can actually boost the job approval numbers for an historically unpopular President; many Americans will sharpen their focus on business. What did it do versus what it said; how did it provide leadership in the community; did it provide inspiration and hope when other major institutions did not?
- Job training and other workplace-related educational initiatives used to be largely reserved for government programs. Today, smart businesses and their industry associations make employee recruitment and retention through sophisticated skills training initiatives a top priority. Wage stagnation; the more draconian impacts of technology upon job creation; the redefinition of entrepreneurship in a 21st century marketplace still encumbered by 20th century rules; are too important societal problems to be left to elected officials largely unwilling or unable to address them. Public policy engagement is no longer an if but rather a when and how often imperative for American business.
- Successful brands use every tool at their disposal to influence policy debates, just as they should and have. What’s changed is that consumers in general, and their customers in particular, will be attach a commercial value that rewards leadership and vision.
Selling widgets used to be a lot easier. Today, making a better widget may prove less determinative of success than the winning of consumer hearts. Words matter, and in a society where uncivil discourse deepens our divides, it’s essential that the business community embrace core values like tolerance, respect, and a renewed commitment to the old business adage of “doing good while doing well.” We need to pursue our most parochial of agendas with a greater mindfulness about the troubling state of where we are as a bitterly divided people. Too many elected officials in both Parties have made this situation worse. Perhaps, businesses, by word and deed, can accelerate the healing process.
The stakes are high for American business and the price for non-engagement severe. The rising tide of populist passion that fans the left and right unites them at an imprecise intersection where anger about income inequality and a declining belief in the American Dream meets rising indignation about corporate privilege. “To whom much is given, from whom much is expected”. Greater leadership by all levels of our business community in addressing our societal needs isn’t just desirable: it’s an imperative.