Consumer engagement must increase in a highly charged political climate

Political handicappers and pollsters agree we're in the midst of an acute anti-Washington and anti-incumbent political climate.

Political handicappers and pollsters agree we're in the midst of an acute anti-Washington and anti-incumbent political climate. While most analysis speculates on what this means for the 2010 midterm election, public affairs pros should ponder the impact this could have on their clients and their interests.

A strong undercurrent of that mood is that the electorate is highly engaged and participatory. Consumers are becoming involved in issues like never before. Armed with an evolved grasp of how Web 2.0 technologies can aid traditional communications and organizing activities, it's easier to make an issue or campaign a cause. 

It's also more vital to galvanize and channel such support. The Obama campaign and Tea Party movement are obvious examples of successful consumer engagement, but the implications extend past the political arena. This fall, for example, one client, 7-Eleven, delivered a record breaking 1.66 million customer signatures to Congress during its "Stop Unfair Credit Card Fees" petition drive. It called on Congress to pass legislation that prevents credit-card companies from charging unfair, non-negotiated transaction fees. 

There's no substitute for the energy, enthusiasm, and influence engaged consumers can bring to a campaign. Integrating consumer engagement efforts into overall PR initiatives can both generate sustainable buy-in from those participating and quantifiable results for clients. 

Wary of ceding a campaign's success to a public with constantly evolving interests, some public affairs pros try to overprogram the consumer engagement portions of their efforts. Instead of simply providing basic tools and forums for engagement and letting natural enthusiasm take over, these efforts micromanage and fail to provide any true sense of consumer investment in an outcome.

However, the best campaigns build a relationship with the consumer. Instead of a one-time ask, successful efforts encourage ongoing engagement. When Congress didn't act quickly enough, 7-Eleven escalated the effort and engaged its consumers again with a point-of-purchase display holding Congressmembers accountable by name and urging customers to contact them directly with a tear-off postcard.

Successful companies can recognize the national mood, but are also savvy enough to tap into this energy and identify real opportunities for consumer engagement and investment to help meet their public affairs goals.

Cara Morris Stern, a comms advisor for Barack Obama's presidential campaign, is a partner at New Partners Consulting.

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