This year, Corporate America will spend close to $5.0 billion dollars to influence federal, state and local public policies and gain access to the multibillion dollar government market for private sector goods and services.
In Texas, lobbying and candidate spending totals about $ 20 million per year, and can be much higher in odd-numbered years when the Texas Legislature is in session.
Further, the proliferation of “Super PAC’s” – bolstered by the US Supreme Court’s recent affirmation of their 2011 decision – provides an outlet for corporate money to advocate for issues and candidates. Through March 31, 2012, major Super PAC’s had raised $ 176.7 million and you can bet they’ll spend it all.
It’s hard to blame them. Legislation and regulation at all levels can significantly impact a company’s bottom line.
While the public remains cynical about the “backroom” world of politics and our ability as citizens to impact policy decisions – which, some will argue, drives down public participation in the political process even further – many in the business community have gained a better understanding of the fact that that they and the elected officials who shape public policy and business regulations share a common constituency–the public.
Corporate America has a tremendous story to tell on many levels – as the engine that drives our economy; employing millions of Americans; fueling a tax base that funds governments and its programs at all levels; making significant philanthropic contributions to help the less privileged, and allowing employees to perform thousands of hours of volunteer work in our communities.
But the “good story” of Corporate America is just not communicated effectively, consistently, nor often enough. Ultimately, business must do a better job in the art of public affairs to succeed in government affairs.
The question is: how can a company communicate strategically, use its internal resources effectively, build strong alliances, and utilize the tactical “toolbox” to play the game of politics – and win?
The arena has traditionally been dominated by activist interest groups who have learned how to gain and use public support effectively, often aided and abetted by the mainstream media.
The recent decision on ‘Obamacare’ and gubernatorial recall election in Wisconsin generated enough emotion and public activism to conclude that the landscape has changed significantly in the last 6-12 months. (Incidentally, at one point during the original health legislation debate in 2009 over $ 1 million per day was spent on influencing ‘Obamacare’).
Today the public – particularly political independents and mainstream Americans — may be more engaged and ready to impact important policy issues than ever before, presenting an opportunity for businesses to capture that emotion at the grassroots level to advance free market-based policy and usurp the traditional agenda setters.
Corporate America can play the high-stakes game of politics more effectively with a guiding strategic communications game plan touching all aspects of their business, and engaging the public proactively, openly and honestly. Enlightened corporate leaders are looking for new ways to engage the public on issues of mutual interest—and do so proactively, rather than reacting to a crisis once the agenda has been imposed on them by others.
Good corporate citizens have the trust of the community and its leaders and that trust often creates the necessary link to advocate a company’s position successfully or generate public support for a policy issue.
Why is it important that companies do this? The traditional, one-track, relationship-only approach to influencing policy and regulation just won’t suffice anymore. The world of public affairs has evolved to encompass a wide variety of disciplines, from strategy and messaging, to social/digital advocacy, alliance development, and community and public relations, among others.
The most sophisticated companies seek to make influencers, stakeholders and customers their ally. Such an objective is ambitious and attainable, but building that relationship – particularly one that can be sustained over a period for time – is no easy task.
Corporate America has an opportunity to create a new paradigm and environment, one in which companies engage the public, add some “sunshine” to the process, and make the public part of the solution to policy and regulatory challenges.
Whatever a large or small company, it is wise to look closely at the business plan and assess the impact of politics – particularly federal, state and local public policies and regulations – on the bottom line, and establish a long-term strategy for strategic and consistent communications with key audiences. Such an assessment can provide the foundation for successful communications throughout the organization and into the public arena – from the ground up.
That’s the key to winning politics over the long term.
Note: Our original commentary on this topic appeared in Texas CEO Magazine on May 20, 2010 (http://texasceomagazine.com/departments/the-business-of-winning-politics/)