When candidates attack!

A comment, tweet or offhand reference by a candidate can put your company at risk, says Michael Kempner, founder and CEO of MWWPR.

Getty Images
Getty Images

With the 2020 election campaign heating up, the interests of business and politics are intersecting daily. While we’ve seen companies take stands on matters of public policy, we are now seeing presidential candidates speak out more forcefully regarding businesses and industries, on issues from antitrust to the environment to agriculture.

In a volatile 24-hour news cycle, driven by current events and the never-ending conversation on social media, a simple comment, tweet or offhand reference by a candidate can put your company in the spotlight and at risk.

A trend of calling out specific companies in policy positions is gaining traction as candidates make public pronouncements on topics ranging from tax policy to industrial competitiveness. The risks are real, to business reputation and to the business itself.

Candidates are emboldened by the often-viral response of social media, and the tendency of traditional news media to amplify any commentary that gains social traction. As a result, brand-bashing on the campaign trail has become one of the preferred ways for candidates to discover which messages resonate with the electorate.

Companies and industries can’t afford to sit on the sidelines hoping they’ll remain under the radar as candidates duke it out for name recognition. Simply put, watching and waiting is ill-advised.
A proactive issues management strategy, developed with insights about the candidates and an expert understanding of the anatomy of political campaigns, is the only effective way to protect your company’s reputation, business relationships and bottom line.

Three steps can help you navigate this complex and highly politicized environment.

First, conduct a vulnerability audit and action plan: Your company must anticipate the news cycle, and realistically assess where it is vulnerable to exploitation by candidates looking to score political points.

This requires an opposition research approach aided by access to the actual candidates and staff to understand their current positions, and the context in which those positions can be evolved. Who are the third-party influencers whose positions have merit? And how can they be deployed to keep your company, or entire issues, on the sidelines?

Once the issues are identified and influencers mapped, you can craft a framework to guide the response.

Second, engage and educate. Working with candidates is entirely different than lobbying elected officials. Their campaigns can be more accessible, but their decisions are driven by immediate success, and that doesn’t always align with sound policy, facts or reason.

Also, candidates are often only superficially knowledgeable about any issue. When they advocate for a policy detrimental to your company, it may be the result of misinformation or a complete lack of information.

A proactive approach may encourage candidates to modify their views, to focus their narratives on different companies or industries, or just stay on the sidelines.

Third, respond. You may be preparing for the election cycle, and may have already engaged candidates or their staff, but your company could still end up in the center of a conversation that you would prefer to avoid.

If this happens, the rules of good crisis and issues management still apply, beginning with the decision of whether to respond at all. Predictive analytics applied to social conversation and the news can help you make that decision.

As we get closer to the Iowa caucuses, the intensity will increase, and the competition for media attention will become even more fierce. With advanced strategic planning, you can ensure that your company’s reputation does not become the victim of a candidate’s policy position, rhetoric, or social media post.

Michael Kempner is the founder and CEO of MWWPR. Carreen Winters is MWWPR’s Chief Strategy Officer and leads MWWPR’s reputation management practice.

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