The following originally appeared on HuffingtonPost and is reprinted here with permission.
The political dynamics of the 2016 presidential election are as intriguing as any we’ve seen. Extreme dissatisfaction on the part of the electorate–both the political Left and Right – along with strong populist headwinds have propelled unexpected candidates into the race for president, and have blurred what individual political parties stand for. Momentum from the grassroots is driving political debate from the bottom up, and in the process, leaving the political establishment and many in the business community perplexed and unsure how to respond to this new political dynamic.
There are a number of reasons for this, but two stand out. First, societal expectations have changed. There is little patience for the long-term and less tolerance for strategies that take longer than a couple of years to show benefit. That’s true in the political context, and often in instances where we see increased shareholder activism. Second, consumers can self-select information – vast amounts of information — more easily that reinforces, rather than challenges, their point of view. While social media has opened the world to so many, it may also have resulted in closing it for others who don’t seek to understand where those with whom they disagree are coming from. All of this is fueling intense skepticism and lack of trust between more traditional infrastructures and consumers (or voters).
As a member of PwC’s executive management team, I oversee our engagement strategy in Washington. During my 11 years at PwC, and before that in senior roles at the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Treasury Department and on Capitol Hill, I’ve had the good fortune to see Washington policymaking from a number of different angles and vantage points. Much has changed in Washington during that 24-year period, but the opportunities to harness real time information to better inform your strategy and decision-making have never been greater or more exciting.
When I first started working in Washington in 1992, there were three TV networks, limited cable, and hundreds of weekly that I wrote editorials for. Those editorials reached a few hundred people each week. We didn’t have the Internet, and had never heard of a blog or tweet. We had a fax machine, and it was the main distribution channel outside of the US postal service for sending and receiving urgent news.
Today, your ability to get your message out is on your mobile phone, and available 24/7. Social media has reinvented the way communities form and interact, and how movements pick up steam. And, it’s resulted in massive change in how politicians and organizations seeking to work must also evolve.
Historically, government relations meant hiring someone with Hill experience, or someone who worked in the White House, or retaining a top lobby firm to represent your organization’s interest in Washington. Typically, it was based on a specific policy need. The traditional approaches are still used, but they are more effective when combined as components of more refined and integrated strategies – rather than strategies themselves.
Capitalizing on Data
Today, innovative organizations are using data from public and social media sources to track influence and impact in order to inform and fine-tune their Washington engagement strategies. This is especially effective because of the increased use of social media platforms by politicians and regulators, and those who seek to influence them. The result is significantly more information – rich information – available to inform your Washington strategy, information that can be used to analyze and map circles and networks of influence. That’s important because it enables you to: more quickly understand how an issue is likely to play, where the circles of influence are, how to craft better and more customized messages, and how to anticipate issues further into the future. And you can accomplish all of this in a fraction of the time it would have taken you historically.
Leveraging New Media and Your Workforce
In addition, organizations are leveraging social media and a vast array of new media platforms to tell more customized, authentic stories about the organization – stories that bring the organization’s culture and values to life, as much as its products or services. It’s important that stakeholders, including Washington based stakeholders, understand the tremendous value your organizations is delivering, how it thinks about critical societal issues, and how it’s engaging on these issues and supporting the communities that make up its workforce and its consumers. Having a well developed purpose and mission that is aligned with the organization’s business strategy is the first step, but getting the organization and its workforce comfortable engaging on these topics is also critical.
And, while the organization itself is an important messenger, so is its workforce. Harnessing the power of the organization’s workforce to share perspectives via social media about the culture, values and mission and commitment to communities can have a significant brand-defining impact. It can help the organization think differently about grassroots engagement and transparency.
Enhancing (and Innovating) Stakeholder Engagement
In addition to harnessing and utilizing data and technologies as part of your strategy, another major area of change and opportunity relates to stakeholder engagement.
Let me show you what I mean by sharing an example of what we’re doing at PwC in an effort to not only create brand distinctiveness, but to help address a problem that impacts both the public and private sectors.
At PwC, creating a diverse and inclusive culture is important. Indeed, we see tremendous benefit at our clients (and in the firm) when more diverse points of view are represented. Our concern about gridlock in Washington actually led us to focus on one area that we felt was being overlooked in the debate – lack of diversity in Congress. Of the 535 members of the U.S. House and Senate – 104 are women – a record number, but a far cry from representing the number of women in this country. So, if we believe that diverse teams and corporate boards produce better results, then why shouldn’t the same be true for congress?
In an attempt to move the needle, we did a few things. We sat down with members of congress and party leaders and asked them how we could do more to help. We listened and we developed several action items that formed our strategy. First, we adjusted our political giving for viable women candidates – giving earlier in the political cycle and in some cases increasing the amounts we were giving. We also began to give more broadly, including to those who serve on committees that have less direct impact on our business. That’s important especially when you consider the degree of turnover in Congress, and the need to support women earlier as they work to rise through the ranks of party and committee leadership.
We also created a pipeline program to help identify female talent earlier, and we are partnering with a few NGOs who are also working in this space to help support and develop women’s talents and leadership potential as early as high school and college.
And, finally, we began speaking publicly about our political engagement efforts related to this program – something we had never done before. We saw that by using the strength of our brand in this context, we could get others to join us, and potentially inspire greater action that contributes to the overall objective.
While moving the needle on diversity is a long-term investment, in the short term, we’ve already achieved benefits to our brand by illustrating our commitment and our culture in a way that resonates (differently and in many ways more personally) with our policymaker audience. We’re showing a different perspective and a different way of thinking about the bottom line benefits of diversity, similar to the way we think about and advise clients on these issues – and, most importantly, we’re also backing up our commitment with real action.
This program and the approach we’re taking is but one example, but it is illustrative of how we are working to think more broadly and more innovatively about how we engage with policymakers and regulators to solve problems that impact the public and private sectors alike.
While shaping what happens in Washington may seem more challenging than ever, there are ways to break through and to showcase why your organization and its workforce matter. Indeed, organizations take a tremendous risk when they fail to recognize the impact that Washington can have on their business. Leveraging data and social media more effectively, thinking more broadly and more creatively about stakeholder engagement, and talking more publicly and collaboratively about the ways that your organization is helping to address societal challenges give you a better opportunity to define the parameters of potential debates. If you wait for others to do so, you may find — especially in the current environment – that your ability to shape the outcome is extremely limited, and your past investments and great work – no matter how significant — might be overlooked or long since forgotten. #
Follow Laura Cox Kaplan on Twitter: www.twitter.com/LauraCoxKaplan