Companies say they want to avoid being drawn into political controversies, even though they have always been an integral part of the political system, and still are.
K Street in Washington, D.C., was, pre-pandemic, not only a major thoroughfare, but the home of copious lobbying firms. Many of their employees are former congressmen and congressional aides. It's their job to sway legislation so it benefits the firm's big-business clients.
The mix of lobbying and cash contributions to political campaigns from corporations proves that businesses always were involved in controversial legislation. Admittedly, they often kept quiet about their positions, allowing lobbyists and trade groups, like the Chamber of Commerce, to speak for them. That tactic worked in the past. But not today.
Try as they might, corporations now find it difficult to stay clear of political controversies for several reasons. Among them:
- Shareholder advocacy groups want to know company positions on issues;
- Employees are more prone to go public with their feelings about company positions;
- Employees pressure management on political and social matters;
- Investigative reports from major publications are at a zenith;
- Opinion columnists and other types of advocacy journalism, similarly, is a growth industry; and
- There are whistleblowers.
In sum, corporations sometimes are dragged into political controversies despite their best efforts at avoiding them. So, instead of claiming neutrality, a better approach might have companies purposely getting involved in politics, but in a way that permits them to appear impartial. This takes out-of-the-box thinking.
The old version of the PR playbook urged companies to release statements saying they were apolitical, which hardly ever was true.
Today, companies should consider encouraging employees to participate in politics. Here's how:
- For several weeks prior to an election, let employees leave work a few hours early each day if they are volunteering for a candidate or party. They'll need to prove they're doing this, of course.
- Collect opinion columns of different viewpoints and distribute them to employees;
- Tape debates of candidates and replay them for employees in the (post-pandemic) office during working hours;
- As Election Day approaches, corporations can invite representatives of major parties to present their viewpoints to employees during working hours.
These activities would accomplish three things:
- They would position the company as a good citizen that encourages employees to pay attention and participate in elections.
- Provide the company with a publicity vehicle, if it chose to use it as such.
- Give the company a way to negate groups pressuring it to take a stand. The company could respond: 'Our company is composed of employees who have different political positions. It's up to them to decide which political or social matters they back. Here's what we do to encourage our employees to express their opinions.'
Bottom Line: Corporations always were involved in controversial political matters, but were able to camouflage themselves. Now it's extremely difficult to do. But they can still be political through lobbying and contributions, though they can appear nonpartisan by instituting programs that let employees do the talking.
Arthur Solomon was SVP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller and is on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. Reach him at: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com