This article also appears as an 5/25/2017 op-ed on The Hill.


In 1990, it was reported that basketball great Michael Jordan was asked if he would endorse North Carolina Senate Democratic Party candidate Harvey Gantt in his bid to upset Republican Jesse Helms. Jordan’s rumored response was to decline and when pressed by friends later said, “Republicans buy sneakers too.” Whether he said this or not, the rumored statement was a mirror of life in corporate America for the better part of three decades — stay clear of politics, stay clear of controversy and appeal to everyone.

The motto was: Just say nothing.

Corporate Political Activism

Fast forward 27 years. In an era of social media and viral videos, corporate political activism is now becoming a requirement for doing business.

Take for example 84 Lumber. The company had one of the top viewed and re-viewed commercials of Super Bowl LI, a story about a family’s immigration journey. It was the first-time that 84 Lumber had ventured out on the stage of issue discussion. The response from the public was mixed, but the big debut certainly increased brand awareness.

Another example: Home Depot,  by default. Home Depot’s co-founder Bernard Marcus has been an outspoken supporter of President Trump. He endorsed him in during the campaign, donated to the Trump campaign and has supported efforts associated with the President’s proposed immigration reform agenda. His position, even though he hasn’t been CEO or on the board since 2002, sparked calls to boycott the retailer, for strikes by its Hispanic and immigrant workforce and drove online petitions. The company was forced onto the political stage with, as could be predicted, mixed results.

Then there is ExxonMobil. Oil and gas companies and millennials seem to go together like oil and water. Exxon was losing the battle among the millennial demographic in terms of advocacy and public affairs. For eight years, oil and gas companies had been defined as “pillagers” of the earth and destroyers of the environment. Enter Exxon’s campaign “Energy lives here.”

Exxon was smart. First, they created positive programs aimed directly at millennial demographics with a narrative they could control. Second, they created a campaign around that narrative and populated with a diverse young “executive” level cadre touting efforts associated with reducing greenhouse gases, biodiversity and using algae creating an “energy farm.”

What Exxon did not talk about was their oil and gas exploration efforts or their desires to do away with climate change requirements under the Obama Administration. Instead, Exxon took a hearts and minds approach. While the results are yet unknown, it is clear that they are in this for the long haul.

Strategy and Planning are Essential

Companies can—and should—have a voice in a transforming American debate on issues. Good public policy and public perception on those policies are crucial to corporate financial success. Companies like Home Depot and 84 Lumber rely on an immigrant workforce to operate their store and ExxonMobil faces a changing energy landscape and environmental restrictions, so advocating a position on those issues makes sense.

So, how does one go about entering the stage?

First, it needs to be part of a larger, well-developed and understood public affairs strategy. Some may ask what is a public affairs strategy? It’s a strategy that combines government relations, media communications, issue management, corporate and social responsibility, information dissemination, and strategic communications to influence public policy, build and maintain your reputation and find common ground with stakeholders.

Taking a position on an issue and advocacy done in a haphazard manner would be akin to a medical practice buying a medical supply store because it “seemed like the thing to do at the time.”

Through the creation of a public affairs strategy that is linked to both risk issues and to the corporate bottom line, an organization can calm concerns from both executives and shareholders alike. With a road map forward, the strategy shows a pathway for the company in changing times.

Second, the opening bow should be planned and coordinated. Going out on your terms and your issues allows the company to gauge both public reception and, as can be predicted, blow back. Taking a first step out in a controlled fashion allows the company to determine the “thickness of the skin” of both its executives and its shareholders. A successful first step allows the company to move forward effectively.

So what’s today’s corporate motto? Just say it.

But if you do, make sure you are prepared.

Andy Beck is executive vice president of Makovsky’s energy, manufacturing and sustainability practice, and general manager of Makovsky’s Washington, D.C., office. Previously, Andy served as the director of public affairs for the U.S. Department of Energy.

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