National brands and organizations increasingly face new and difficult decisions about whether to engage in discussions around hot button issues that may not be directly tied to their bottom lines or core missions. The Edelman Trust Barometer recently revealed that 86% of respondents believe CEOs should lead on societal challenges and 61% trust the business community, a higher percentage than any other institution studied.
These evolving expectations are not happening in a vacuum. In the United States, political polarization is at an all-time high. One recent survey found that 86% of Democrats had “a great deal” or “quite a bit” of confidence that the 2020 presidential election was held fairly. Just 15% of Republicans said the same.
As politics -- and political divisions -- bleed over into every facet of American life, any organization with a national presence must now craft a cohesive narrative for an increasingly divided country.
The Edelman Trust Barometer also found that 68% of respondents believe CEOs should step in when government is unwilling or unable to solve key issues. As CEOs begin taking on roles that resemble a politician, they should borrow from tried-and-true campaign playbooks to ensure they and their organizations are strategically navigating these uncharted political waters.
Identify Your Base
Whether they are customers, donors, stakeholders, or voters, every organization must first identify its target audience. This must involve an honest read of key constituencies and is foundational to all successful communications, marketing, or political campaigns.
Conduct Rigorous Research
Once you know your target audience, you must determine what messages move them. How? Just ask. Rigorous quantitative survey research forms the bedrock of any major messaging campaign. Qualitative research such as focus groups also provides invaluable nuances in how your target audience perceives a message. These efforts can help determine topline messages along with themes that can be specifically targeted to critical subgroups within the larger audience.
Own Your Narrative
Potential landmines litter the new, overtly political arena businesses must navigate. Organizations should take the findings from their research, build a plan, and stick to it. Establishing a trusted program prevents organizations from constantly reacting to the story of the day and allows for strategic decisions when they ultimately decide to weigh in. It is now impossible to avoid addressing many political issues, but that does not mean organizations are subject to the whims of the latest online outrage. Chart your course. Trust the plan. Own your narrative.
National politics are divisive and messy, contributing to the erosion of trust in the national media outlets that report on it. According to a 2019 Knight-Gallup study, 66% of Americans trusted local news to “report the news without bias,” compared to just 31% for national news organizations. This stark credibility gap creates an urgent need for national organizations to develop robust regional press and external affairs plans, including building relationships with local reporters, engaging 3rd parties, and producing on the ground events where appropriate.
As some politicians have recently shown, it is possible to bypass traditional media by using direct contact with a target audience. Whether it is a creative social media presence, a must-read newsletter, or behind the scenes content, organizations should work to find unique ways to communicate that supersede the partisanship that infects so much of the national dialogue.
This new normal can be unsettling for organizations and leaders who have traditionally avoided divisive political battles. But with the right tools and a trusted plan, the constant drama coming out of Washington, D.C. does not have to drive the day for a national organization.