Communicating in a divided nation: Lessons from the midterm elections

As communicators we can play a role in addressing our current national divide, says BCW's Jeff Joseph.

It's likely Congress will be split after all the votes are counted. (Photo credit: Getty Images).

What do the 2022 midterm election results mean for communications professionals seeking to advise internal and external clients? Here are five takeaways and recommendations:

We remain a country divided

Tread carefully. As I write, the balance of power in the House of Representatives is undecided with Democrats retaining control in the Senate. The probable slim margins mean that any small group of legislators who band together will have considerable influence. While this may be a recipe for a gridlocked, “do nothing” Congress, it creates an opportunity for public affairs professionals, policy communicators and lobbyists to build small coalition groups with oversized power. 

For communications professionals, a closely divided government means thinking carefully about how your messages and activations will be viewed across the political spectrum and in the halls of Congress. Even brand and product communicators should be informed by a recognition that their strategies will be seen by many through a political lens. Would the effort be described as “too woke” by the right? Would the left suggest it is tone deaf to the needs of a diverse population? Remain mindful of how your message could be perceived relative to the external political environment in addition to stakeholder expectations and be open to revisiting or recalibrating your messaging.

Be prepared for an ESG backlash

ESG and social issues were not at the top of voter concerns this cycle yet are powerful motivators for many across party lines. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis won his election decisively and changed Florida politics in part by his willingness to take strong conservative stands on social issues and use his bully pulpit to challenge companies willing to speak out on such issues. Republican leaders in Congress will take note. Expect a Republican-led House to investigate companies embracing what conservatives view as progressive issues, as well as companies they believe censor conservative voices. When developing your ESG program, always lead with your corporate values but be mindful of the potential for political backlash.

Track behind the dominant policy discussions

The coming lame-duck session may provide an opportunity for communicators to develop messaging and activations drafting behind the key issues under congressional consideration. Likely legislative priorities during the coming month-long lame-duck session include healthcare, mental health and funding for communities impacted by natural disasters. 

Remain mindful that all politics is local

The narrow margins in the House and Senate make it increasingly difficult for either party to notch significant wins in Congress. Enter state governors, legislatures, state agencies and attorneys general. From immigration to abortion rights to tech policy to healthcare, key policy issues increasingly are being addressed at the state level. This trend demands communicators focus on the states in terms of formulating messaging as well as advocacy efforts.

Establish leadership by finding common ground

Nearly three in four Americans said it would be good for the country if Americans, "reject political hostility and divisiveness and focus more on their common ground.  

Communications and policy professionals who can help brands effectively communicate what unites us can help their clients rise above the clamor to become trusted leaders. Explore opportunities to change the national conversation to create a new narrative that centers on people’s shared and diverse needs.

Indeed, as communicators we can play a role in addressing our current national divide. We can advise our clients to rise above the fray by demonstrating our shared values. With that in mind, here’s one more piece of advice:

Start human. Stay human. Some researchers say correcting our misperceptions of those in the opposing group might help reduce hostility. Begin with showcasing respect that those on both sides have noble ideals and values. Push back on defining either side by the extremists who demand and receive most of the airspace. We can help bridge the divide by calling on all to a higher commitment, to honor our shared principles. “They” are not monsters. “They” are not criminals. “They” are our neighbors and friends who desire the same as we do. What a powerful and inclusive message in these divided times.

Jeff Joseph is president of Washington, DC, at BCW. 

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