Big Business as Political Props: Operate Cautiously in this Pandemic-Shaped Election Year

Businesses are operating in an unprecedented time, with a public health crisis triggering an economic shock that has led to enormous federal support for the private sector. Companies trying to navigate this new reality face an additional complexity: a presidential and congressional election year. That means that Republicans and Democrats may try to use Big Business as props to score political points with their base as well as swing voters.

Businesses have regularly been pulled into the political conversation during this pandemic in three different ways:

  • Receiving letters from members of Congress as well as oversight committees seeking information about their businesses or their industry’s actions relating to the pandemic
  • Being summoned to the White House for private and public discussions with President Trump or other administration leaders, often with little notice or context
  • Becoming a target of agencies and regulators seeking to investigate – or at the very least shine a brighter spotlight on – their actions

In all three situations, companies – especially those with little or no presence in Washington D.C. – can find it challenging to figure out how to respond. The stakes can be high: how businesses react can inflame a situation, mitigate it or extinguish it.

It’s important to keep in mind that all three scenarios have political motivations behind them and understanding why Republicans and Democrats may be singling out your company or industry for their own benefits will provide essential context needed to determine what next steps you take. Put simply, business is often not the target. It is the foil used to embarrass the opposition party, curry favor with voters and create political advantage. This is a critical distinction in the calibration of an appropriate response.

Given the current landscape, businesses would be wise to operate cautiously and adhere to a few principles before interacting.

  • Slow down. Receiving a letter from Congress, an invitation from the White House or an inquiry from an agency can be unsettling. Companies may be tempted to act quickly and respond publicly. However, in these hyper-political times, there is often little to be gained by being out front. Whenever circumstances allow, resist the urge to act immediately. Responses that do not take all factors into consideration or align with a company’s strategic goals can cause long-term harm.  A standby/holding statement for use with media can, however, be important to develop quickly, since members of Congress often notify press when they send letters.
  • Gather information and determine appropriate response. Understand all the factors that may have led to the government’s outreach and seek intelligence from peer companies and trade associations. Often in an election year, politicians are acting purely for political purposes – i.e. to increase their name recognition, better position themselves within their respective party or bolster a specific narrative.  Don’t allow your company to be used as a prop, don’t feel pressured to be the face of the industry by speaking on behalf of your peers and don’t overshare. Remember that anything you say or do likely will become public so precise communications are key.
  • Define your narrative. What messages are important to share? Messages should focus – to a certain extent – on what is being asked without oversharing, while also including elements of the company’s broader narrative. If you are pulled into the spotlight, which will often happen not by your choice, this narrative can quickly define or redefine public perceptions. It also may afford room for companies to educate politicians about the industry.
  • Scenario plan. Take time to consider all the different outcomes from engaging – or not engaging – and develop strategic communications strategies for each. How will the company try to mitigate the reputational as well as financial risk of becoming a political prop in an election year? How will the company react if it inadvertently becomes a part of the larger and more drawn out political dialogue? And how does the situation affect long-term strategic plans?

All these steps are general best practices for companies engaging with Washington or state governments, but they become especially important today because the stakes are raised for businesses navigating the uncertainty around COVID-19 in an election year. Taking a breath, considering the context, leaning on the intelligence and perspective you’ve gathered, and only then determining the right communications and engagement approach will help companies avoid unnecessary angst and position them best during this highly complex election year and over the long term.

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