Grabbing (or Avoiding) the Election Spotlight

February 18, 2016

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Who determines what issues are become front and center in presidential campaigns? Why are certain topics suddenly gaining considerable air time in the 2016 campaign? Who shapes the debate?

Last week, Sara Fagen, Partner at our sister firm DDC Advocacy, and I had a chance to draw from our political campaign experiences in a discussion moderated by Doug Pinkham, President of the Public Affairs Council. We discussed the enormous opportunity campaigns present to raise awareness around issues – but also the considerable risk borne by industries and companies who become the “bad example” on the stump. Especially with two anti-establishment political insurgents dominating the airwaves and debates, the time is now to make your plan to promote your issue or protect your reputation.

Sara and I agree that the rise of candidates like Trump and Sanders is coming from a place of deep economic and social dissatisfaction among the American electorate. People feel that the system has failed them and has failed to stop those who are pushing down middle class Americans. People want change. Senator Sanders and Mr. Trump have both harnessed that anger – echoing and amplifying it on a national stage.

For those companies or organizations who want to harness this climate to bring attention to their issue, you have both old-fashioned and newfangled tools at your disposal. As I’ve been out talking to voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, I (and the candidates themselves) begin to operate on what Sara called “pattern recognition:” putting together the three, four or five stories we hear from people who are concerned about making ends meet, finding a better job or paying for college for their kids. A very organic example of this is the high profile that heroin addiction achieved in the New Hampshire primary; the result of months and months of personal conversations between the candidates and constituents who knew someone facing that challenge. Utilizing field operatives, your grassroots network and earned media channels to surround candidates with voters and stories championing your issue helps to create these moments and connections.

There are just as many companies, industries or associations that may wish to avoid the limelight as those that wish to harness it and for good reason. The anger and dissatisfaction of ’16 and the volatility of the election cycle creates risk for any organization that could unexpectedly be framed as a contributing factor for what ails the nation. Additionally, the potential for a protracted primary fight well into spring or summer and a boisterous general election makes this a much longer term challenge.

How can an organization protect itself? One way is to plan for campaign visibility in the same way that we approach other crisis planning exercises. Do you have the right social media, traditional media and stakeholder monitoring in place to serve as an effective early warning system? Have you thought through your potential vulnerabilities, and developed rapid response plans in case of a campaign attack? And is there any groundwork you can lay now to insulate yourselves, or to build relationships you can draw upon in case you’re unfairly criticized?

One highly effective method of reducing risk is in starting conversations with untapped supporters and unconventional allies, not unlike the partnerships between hunters and environmentalists to protect wetlands or the bipartisan movement to fight HIV/AIDS and global poverty. We have found that we can often best manage risk not only by using the full suite of public affairs capabilities at our disposal but also by helping our clients envision and build these uncommon alliances. Effective coalitions need to go beyond naming the problem; they also need to offer a solution to the problems people are facing in their day to day lives.

Ultimately, the key to capitalizing on, or surviving, the campaign season is to start early. If we can help our clients understand the environment, prepare early warning systems, communicate their vision and build uncommon alliances then we can better help guide them through the unexpected twists and turns of an election year like none other.