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The Business of Winning Politics

On the heels of Election Day and the dramatic shakeup in Congress, Corporate America has either a mandate or an opportunity to change the way it does business.

Many in the business community may fear they’ve lost an ally with the end of Republican leadership. In the months to come, Corporate America will need to re-evaluate its strategy for communicating with lawmakers and the constituency they share – the public.

Elected officials in Congress missed the communications memo and many were tuned out and turned out by the voting public on Tuesday. The message, if any, to Texas elected officials was less dramatic.

What seems clear is that Texas Governor Rick Perry has positioned himself firmly at the intersection of the business community and the public, engaged the two constituencies, and turned it into a winning formula. With another four-year term, he ran his record to a perfect 8-0 in contested elections by touting his pro-business record, which includes building a strong business infrastructure through tort reform and transportation, and attracting new companies, capital and jobs to the state.

There are lessons on both fronts for Corporate America.

Ultimately, business must communicate strategically and proactively, use its internal resources effectively, and build strong external alliances to play the game of politics and win.

Corporate American spends – some would say “invests” – an estimated $2.5 billion dollars each year (a whopping $6.5 million per day, according to the Wall Street Journal) to influence federal, state and local public policies and gain access to the multi-billion dollar government market for private sector goods and services. Understandably. Legislation and regulation at all levels can significantly impact the bottom line.

The business community’s traditional opponents have similar firepower.

The Sierra Club has an annual budget of about $100 million and 750,000 members; the National Resources Defense Council has annual revenues of close to $55 million and 1 million members; and the Environmental Defense takes in about $50 million annually and claims a membership of 400,000.

The public affairs arena is dominated by activist interest groups – most opposing businesses interests - who have learned how to gain and use public support effectively.

Corporate America has been less successful, but not for lack of a positive story to tell. The business community is the engine that drives our economy; employing millions of Americans; fueling a tax base that funds governments and its programs at all levels; making millions of dollars in philanthropic contributions to help the less privileged, and allowing employees to perform thousands of hours of volunteer work in our communities. While the business community has often been on its heels when it comes to shaping public opinion, 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.

An effective communications program should have a laser-like focus on developing a positive relationship between an organization and the public. To do so, it must develop a message, create a strategy to communicate it, generate support for it, and measure its results.

It is also important to utilize a company’s internal resources to the maximum effect, with close coordination between internal company personnel who understand the company, its culture, and its key issues, and outside experts who offer an objective view and unique skills in areas where the company has not, by choice or otherwise, developed those skill sets internally.

In today’s world of politics and issue influence, we are in the midst of a transition from relationship-based government affairs (though that component remains critical) to a more multi-faceted, integrated, and coordinated approach that engages multiple audiences, backed by solid research that guides the messaging.

The other significant change is symbolized by the Jack Abramoff scandal in Washington, which has made the public even more cynical about the “backroom” world of politics and likely had at least a subtle manifestation on Election Day.

Corporate America has an opportunity to create a new paradigm, a new 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. The most sophisticated companies will seek to make the public their ally. Such an objective is ambitious and attainable.

A company is wise to look closely at its business plan, 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 consistent, effective communications with key audiences, most notably the public.

Through such an assessment, companies can begin the process of building a foundation for successful communications throughout the organization and into the public arena - from the ground up.

It is not only important but the key to winning politics over the long term.