There is no faster, more brutal and less discriminating news cycle than that of Washington D.C. Out of sheer necessity, some companies and certain industries—pharmaceuticals and Wall Street come to mind—have become accustomed to dealing with the complex nuances of legislation, regulation and public opinion. Others, out of convenience and adherence to the motto out of sight out of mind, have preferred an arms-length relationship with politics. They do so at their own peril.
Today politicians, regulators and public interest groups are stakeholders with equal ability to undo a corporate reputation as fast as any investor, employee or customer revolt—and on a global scale. Given the worldwide presence of even midsize companies, executives need to worry about the news cycles in Beijing, Brussels and cities around the planet, regardless of where they call home.
It shouldn’t take a crisis to spark change and increase communication with policy makers.
CEOs and other stewards of the brand need to become known around the corridors of governmental power as people trying to help policy makers solve the nation’s or the world’s problems—supporting the system and community rather than being an obstacle. Such a reputation can do wonders to counteract assaults on their character, should any arise, but a civic halo also enhances the company in the eyes of the public.
Two examples of business people who have became heroes of the Beltway: billionaire Warren Buffett for his willingness to pay his fair share and Jeff Immelt, General Electric’s CEO, for his efforts to develop alternative energy and bring manufacturing back to the U.S. Immelt’s vision, in fact, has helped his company move from polluter to problem solver in a matter of a few years.
The more common role, however, for companies and industries on Capitol Hill is as the focal point of political ire on a host of issues. Some businesses have been severely and irreparably affected, but others like Microsoft and Wal-Mart have managed to respond to the criticism, increase their outreach to Washington and improve their corporate social responsibility efforts around the country. But it shouldn’t take a crisis to spark change and increase communication with policy makers.
The world of public policy requires business leaders to learn to operate in a radically different environment in which no one is immune to criticism or guaranteed respect. They sometimes are confronted with a plethora of competing agendas, seeking visibility and influence, in which their company and employees can sometimes become yet another pawn. A single well-scripted congressional hearing, complete with storylines of victims and villains, can cast a pall over a previously sterling corporate reputation.
The good news is that many of the same principles of the marketplace can be adapted to protect the brand in the political realm. Speed, transparency, media savvy, third-party validation and broad-based grassroots support all need to be organized and mobilized to tell a company story, in a compelling and authentic way, that can withstand sometimes brutal attacks and existential threats. Truth can indeed be on your side, but unlike a presentation to Wall Street, a company needs to be able to have convincing data for more than just their last quarter. In the public affairs arena, companies are being graded as corporate citizens and employers, and executives are being judged by how much they recognize the needs of the greater society. It may be new metrics for some but they’re real measurements they should get used to.