HOLMES REPORT: The best way for companies to inspire their employees is with information, not coercion

There is nothing particularly new about efforts by corporate America to involve employees in the public affairs process.

There is nothing particularly new about efforts by corporate America to involve employees in the public affairs process.

Coalition builders have long understood that rank-and-file employees can be more effective than CEOs and lobbyists in presenting a company's case. Corporations have, on occasion, shipped workers en masse to Capitol Hill to demonstrate on issues - trade is a big one - where their interests correspond to those of management. But as a contentious election nears, many companies are going further than ever to involve employees, sponsoring voter-registration efforts and - more controversially - providing employees with information on candidates' voting records, showing how they voted on issues of interest to the company. Managers are not telling their employees which way to vote - that would be a breach of campaign finance laws - but they are clearly hoping to persuade them to vote for more "pro-business" candidates. One leader of this effort is the Prosperity Project, launched in 1999 by the Business Industry Political Action Committee (BIPAC). The project has drawn about 400 corporate and trade-group members, such as ExxonMobil, Caterpillar, International Paper, the National Mining Association, and the American Forest & Paper Association. BIPAC, unsurprisingly, mostly supports Republican candidates, saying that John Kerry is, as CEO Greg Casey told The Hill, "not a business candidate. He hasn't even pretended to be." This effort has alarmed some activist groups that fear companies will promote a "narrow self-serving agenda" and label the education effort "arm twisting." These activists appear more interested in partisanship than genuine democracy. Their objections are misplaced, their fears are misguided. There is nothing inherently wrong with providing information to employees or telling them where the company stands on certain issues. That information is relevant to their voting decisions. Of course, employees will choose for themselves how to use information, often balancing it against what they get from other sources: the media, labor unions, family and friends, and more. Not only is there no guarantee that employees will slavishly follow the corporate line, there's a good chance they'll view the information as mere corporate propaganda. A recent Towers Perrin survey, for example, found that about half of America's employees feel employers "spin" the truth when they communicate internally. The majority of employees are smart enough to see through spin and decide for themselves. Trust them to do that.
  • Paul Holmes has spent the past 17 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of www.holmesreport.com.

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