Facebook's recent announcement that Joe Lockhart and Joel Kaplan will join the company not only fulfills the social-network behemoth's ongoing desire to hire some of the best and brightest strategists in the political world, but is a testament to the high stakes the company faces — now and further down the road.
It is also a wise preemptive move that other tech-industry companies should consider as they face the new landscape in Washington. In response to his fellow Democrats falling back into the minority in the House, President Obama has pivoted from trying to exert control over businesses primarily through the legislative process to exerting control through regulatory bodies like the FCC.
This subtle but powerful change means that companies have to adapt to the new environment to stay ahead of the curve and avoid unforeseen pitfalls — which is why I think Lockhart and Kaplan are brilliant hires.
Lockhart and Kaplan are seasoned communications and public policy pros, respectively, and represent a smart bipartisan approach by Facebook. A former White House spokesman under Bill Clinton, Lockhart is coming off an impressive stretch of success as a founding partner of DC public affairs powerhouse Glover Park Group. Kaplan, former deputy chief of staff for George W. Bush, also possesses a very substantive background and is admired as a great strategist and a “get-it-done” kind of guy.
As tech companies get better at reaching target customers, collecting data, and developing new ways of selling products and bundling services (yeah, that means you, Groupon), Congress and the regulators will want a piece of the action — that is, they'll want control. Control over issues like privacy, online security and data integrity, as well as a host of other issues coming down the pike.
Whether it's an issue like privacy or retaining (or selling) personal information, or actions like stopping a competitor's acquisition of another company (or, conversely, ensuring that it goes smoothly), officials want to get involved. Regulators as diverse as Justice Department anti-trust attorneys, FCC commissioners, and a range of others can play havoc with a company's ability to compete in the marketplace, stabilize its stock price, and promote future growth.
Facebook's hiring is a timely recognition (or reaffirmation) that these public affairs fights really are wars, requiring an arsenal of tools. Patience and persistence are virtues here.
And the battle has to be fought on several fronts. First, there is the “ground war” of lobbying and direct advocacy on the Hill, as well as grassroots efforts that are waged out in the states and in congressional districts. At the same time, there also needs to be a corresponding “air war” consisting of aggressive media relations and other consensus-building activities. Spread throughout the process is ongoing public opinion research to inform messaging and advocacy advertising in different media, new and old. And these efforts are all supported and amplified by harnessing online social media tools to move minds, create momentum, and compel action.
It's a complicated landscape, and companies like Facebook are finally coming to recognize that the services we communicators and public affairs practitioners provide are essential for heading off trouble before it begins.
Robert Tappan, a former senior official at the US Department of State, is president of The Tappan Group, a public affairs firm based in the Washington, DC area. His column looks at issues advocacy and related public affairs topics. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.