Public Affairs and the Court of Public Opinion

public affairs

August 9, 2022

By Heather Keroes, APR

Public affairs is a critical part of reputation management. We live in an angry world and your company can expect to be judged by what it does or does not do. Company missions and values can easily become intertwined as organizations, from large, global entities to small, “mom and pop” shops, are defined by more than what they sell, but also by stances on major cultural, economic or political issues, even if those issues may not have a direct correlation to their business.

Your organization’s decisions and the way you communicate those actions are up for judgement in the court of public opinion, as your customers and employees increasingly seek an answer to the question, “What do you stand for?”

For some, this public affairs side of reputation management may already be well-embedded in company culture, purpose and corporate social responsibility. Ben & Jerry’s, for example, sells more than just ice cream … the company operates with the belief that “ice cream can change the world” and uses a hefty portion of its profit to support its core values of advancing human rights, social and economic justice, and environmental protection. With a highly action-focused mission, it comes as no surprise when Ben & Jerry’s is vocal on social issues of weight and significance, serving up political commentary following lighter-hearted tweets about ice cream, even when the opinion may polarize them from potential customer segments.

Not every company is Ben & Jerry’s, nor can it be, but every organization needs to know what moves it and its customers. Public affairs and community relations are starting to overlap as companies consider the impact that legislative and regulatory issues may have not only on their businesses, but also on their customers and employees. For example, in response to the overturning of Roe v. Wade, Dick’s Sporting Goods and other companies voiced disagreement with the Supreme Court ruling and pledged to cover reproductive health-related travel costs for employees. And Disney, which is reported to have worked quietly behind the scenes to amend Florida House Bill 1557 (more commonly known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill), was criticized for not taking more publicly vocal action. This was a decision that Disney’s CEO later apologized for, leading to a stronger statement against the bill and a pledge of increased support to advocacy organizations.

For organizations that are not typically under the spotlight, their teams must carefully decide what to elevate, which can become an even greater challenge when addressing an issue that’s not as commonly known, affects or involves fewer people, or may not be among the hot-button topics that dominate news headlines. What are the pros and cons of speaking out? What will happen if you do nothing?

This is why public affairs is an important pillar of reputation management. A good public affairs strategy can be complicated, because politics, issues and people are complicated. We are not lobbyists at Curley & Pynn, but the work we do has the potential to impact governmental and regulatory decisions that are vital to our clients and their stakeholders.

Here are several points we consider when advising our clients on their public affairs strategy.

Be authentic.

As several companies have learned over the last few years, words alone are not enough. Be genuine about your stance on an issue and back it up with actions your company will take to support those words. Not being authentic does not go unnoticed, and such lack of commitment will cost you valuable stakeholder trust and become a mark against your company’s reputation and brand equity. If your organization is not ready to commit to action, ask why and consider if those roadblocks are warranted or if they need to be knocked over.

Be knowledgeable.

Our team works closely with several of our clients’ government relations teams since we manage or support communications tied to their legislative issues. In addition to educating ourselves and following industry news and related policymaking, the insights from the government relations teams are vital to informing our strategies. These teams are on the front lines, speaking with lawmakers and constituents, and providing invaluable insight. Even if you are not involved in communicating a government action-focused message, being aware of such company advocacy is important for development and timing of your general communications, ensuring all are aligned and not in conflict.

Know what matters to your stakeholders.

Any communications professional who is worth their salt can list their target publics – the people they want to reach to sell a product, service or membership, or to attract and keep as investors or employees. You may be able to name those targets for your message, but do you know what matters to them? Conduct interviews and other research to identify and understand their take on issues, and also, to learn what they may or may not know about your organization’s values and actions. You may be surprised by what you learn.

Know when to grab a hammer or a feather.

Should you hammer out your message, strike lightly or somewhere in between? Not all issues are cut and dry, and you may learn that your stakeholders and even your own team are divided on an issue. Even so, if you are taking a stance as an organization, you must agree to fully commit to it. Especially when addressing an issue that evokes many emotions and varying sentiments, be prepared to address it respectfully yet firmly, speaking from the heart while being true to brand voice. Be factual and explain why the organization is taking that position, how it connects to your values and/or mission, and how the company will take action.

Clearly define goals and be ready for change.

Whether taking a position on a broad social issue or a challenge that only impacts your company or industry, have clearly defined goals in mind (in an ideal situation, what would be the end result?), and be prepared for change and possibly some compromise along the way that will help you in reaching that ultimate goal. The end is not the end. There is always another election year, another legislative session, another opportunity to reach, educate and influence more people. If things don’t turn out as desired, report back to stakeholders on the efforts you made and any wins you had along the way (how public you may want to be at this stage depends on the situation!), and get back to planning.

Public affairs and the opportunity to affect meaningful policy development or change for your company and your people are incredible responsibilities that organizations cannot take lightly. If you need help navigating those waters, drop us a line.

 

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