Politics and PR: To Speak or Not To Speak

By Claire Papanastasiou

Wiretapping. Conflicts of interest. Russia. Twitter. Fake news.

From a public relations perspective, the events originating from and surrounding the current administration are jaw-dropping. The news pipeline is a perpetual PR case study, making for spirited conversations among media professionals. Yet when it comes to the business world – especially relating to PR initiatives – there’s an uneasiness and trepidation around discussing political developments. As with previous administrations, the unwritten rule has been to remain silent and focus on the traditional business at hand.

It’s time to rewrite that rule.

If there’s ever an opportunity to broach the U.S. political scene and the state of America on the business fronts, it’s now. The seismic and overlapping shifts in societal, media, legal and political landscapes are making for anxious times. PR professionals, however, are uniquely equipped to raise uncomfortable topics given our training and experience. Human dynamics fuel us, and that fascination is often the basis of our most successful PR approaches and strategies.

For PR professionals, engaging a company’s leadership proactively about the policies under debate or consideration on Capitol Hill will lead to important conversations. If done appropriately, those discussions will, at a minimum, strengthen relationships, the core of effective PR programs. At a maximum, such discussions will help enlighten the public about issues that may well have an impact on their own interests – business or personal. The key is to focus on how we approach a political topic during uneasy times.

Step Back. Detach.

An initial step is to check personal political opinions and keep them out of the conversation. This isn’t about changing anyone’s political leanings. This is about business, specifically advancing an enterprise’s goals and advancing (or sometimes protecting) reputations. Focus on the impact of any potential regulatory or legislative change from D.C. by cutting through the political personalities, hyperbole and drama. Drill down to the real, practical, fact-based significance of an issue.

For financial sector enterprises (including fintech), activity relating to Dodd-Frank, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) or the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) is highly relevant. For energy clients, the future of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). For automotive clients, infrastructure and trade developments are vital. For law firms and professional services, court appointees and regulatory changes across all industries would resonate depending on practice areas. For healthcare and biotech, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is key. For the high-tech sector, H-1B visas are front and center.

Some topics will be trickier to address than others, though by focusing on the practical impact of a matter, a PR team can tap into a thought leader’s experience and expertise to help position them as an unbiased authority on an important relevant issue. Below are a few practical PR pointers for businesses gleaned from a Matter panel discussion.

Know your stuff.

Before broaching any subject with a reporter, read up on the topics, including perspectives from all sides for a comprehensive understanding of the issue. Expand your news sources. Check-out trade association sites and newsletters as they are often on the front line of debates and are up-to-date.

Look at the big picture.

Consider the impact not only on your enterprise, though on an entire industry. Articulate the impact on the larger picture, which resonates more with the media. Ask yourself open-ended questions:

  • What issues in D.C. will affect my industry?
    • What is the potential impact of XYZ?
    • Where does my enterprise stand on XYZ?
  • Whom among my leadership team should be involved in determining the impact and whether to engage publicly on an issue?
  • Who are my target audiences and why should they care?

Weigh the pros and cons.

Exposure can be great if a CEO or institution takes a stand. The true barometer of success with that approach, however, is how their target audiences would react. An uptick in headlines and coverage is great, though meaningless if it doesn’t advance business goals – or worse, alienate current or potential clients as well as employees.

Vet your position.

Work with your PR team to look for holes in your points and theories before engaging the media. PR is all about reputation, so be sure a unique and meaningful element is added to an issue – and back it up. No alternate facts, please.

Be prepared for worst-case scenarios.

Regardless of whether a company decides to engage, a crisis communication protocol is key, including how to respond to a negative, early-morning Tweet from the leader of the free world. (Since the election, Donald Trump has tweeted about 62 companies, large and small, according to Yahoo! Finance — and there is no indication that the Tweets will subside.) If there’s an upside to engaging in a political issue, create a plan and be proactive. If there are anticipated challenges, create a plan and continue to assess a situation. The ideal route may to remain passive – or engage if there’s more upside to being proactive. Each scenario differs, though the takeaway here is to have a plan, which helps in minimizing panic when and if a crisis hits.

Diving into a political debate – especially during today’s climate – is an uncomfortable endeavor, though the United States is a nation of laws and regulations. Now more than ever, what is going on in D.C. will have an impact on several industries and, by extension, businesses as well as their clients and employees. It’s our responsibility as PR professionals to connect the dots for clients to spur important conversations to learn more about the potential impact. Doing so not only provides a healthy discussion about leveraging media opportunities, it also enlightens those involved, and that can only raise the bar during these extraordinarily uneasy times.