Companies beware – and, more importantly, be aware: election season is here

September marks the official start of the fall campaign season, and if you already thought everything was politicized, just wait for the final stretch leading up to November 8th, when control of the U.S. House and Senate, as well as statehouses from coast-to-coast, will be at stake.

Candidates of all political stripes will seize on any policy issue to score points with specific groups of voters, and companies will no doubt get caught in the middle. At best, they’ll go after entire sectors like energy or technology, or promise to stick it to big business altogether. At worst, candidates will single out companies by name. Either way, corporate America will get drawn into the debate.

So, how can a company communicate on non-partisan policy issues as this already hyper-partisan environment goes into overdrive?

Staying silent until the election is over isn’t the answer. Elections are the Super Bowl of politics and completely disengaging means that you may miss important moments when it makes sense for you to promote your company message with the policymaking crowd. Plus, candidates or unexpected events can always drag an unwilling company into the political spotlight. So, it’s best to be aware and be prepared.

Instead of going dark:

  • Stick with your long-term advocacy plan. Elections no doubt already are built into your policy agenda’s communications and engagement plan. Don’t let the campaign trail noise distract you from engaging on business-critical issues. Execute against your plan and focus on policy, not partisanship.
  • Pick your spots. Every policy issue will be debated and politicized, but that doesn’t mean you need to,  or should, weigh in every time one of your priorities arises. Choose your spots carefully, considering whether speaking up advances your agenda or alienates a candidate or political party.
  • Don’t get pulled into issues that aren’t core to your business or mission. Candidates will debate many issues that don’t touch your business. Even so, they – or your employees, customers or investors – still may try to drag you into the discussion. Don’t take the bait on topics that aren’t core to your mission unless you determine that staying silent raises significant business and/or reputational risk.
  • Be consistent and calm. The end of a campaign is no time to change policy positions or roll out new ones because you will inevitably thrust yourself right into the election, with candidates weighing in. Instead, emphasize your long-standing positions and your work with leaders on both sides of the aisle. Focus on established priorities and problem solving, not partisan debate. And keep your tone even.
  • Refrain from betting on a candidate. Anything can happen on Election Day, so if you decide to weigh in on an issue, make sure you use language that doesn’t choose sides, like “no matter who wins the House or Senate …” and try to communicate with affirmative core messages, like how you support free trade and competition, and will continue to focus on those issues regardless of the outcome.

The partisan frying pan that is election season brings with it risks and opportunities when it comes to thoughtful policy discussion on business issues. Companies should, and in fact need, to have a voice on issues that are critical to their business and their stakeholders. But they should carefully assess whether, how and where to communicate on core issues. Otherwise, instead of voicing an opinion on how the political eggs should be cooked, the company could be served up as breakfast.

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