Wendy Glavin, Founder & CEO, Wendy Glavin Agency
Politics aside, for the moment, do you feel you can speak up and speak out without fear of being attacked, called out or judged both online and offline?
On February 26, 2019 “Truth on Trial” hosted by the Schar School of Policy & Government at George Mason University in Arlington, VA welcomed high-ranking legal, communications, and media experts to discuss the divide in our country and how the democratic process has changed.
Strategic Communications Expert Michael Caputo said, “Everything has changed. It used to be you didn’t say anything against your judge and you didn’t post on Instagram. Traditionally, communications stayed positive. In the last three years, things have evolved. Today, if someone is an adversary you call them out on it. Now, to win a court case, a seat at the table or a new location for your corporation, people will start defining who their enemy is which is going to be very difficult for those of us in communications to overcome.”
Nike’s Ad and a Debate of Ideas
Take Gillette’s socially-charged ad, “We Believe: The Best Man Can Be,” which addressed social issues, like bullying, sexual harassment, “boys will be boys” and more. Whether you loved it or hated it, people were talking about it. Consumers have lost trust in our governmental institutions, the media and businesses and place value in purpose-driven rather than profit-driven brands. It’s a risky move to take a position.
“From a strategic standpoint, Gillette was seen as a leader because it initiated a debate of ideas. The climate can’t be categorized in one way with a broad brush. It’s situational and brand-specific. While today, we feel more divided, politics (to a certain extent) has always been about this divide. With social media, people are living and breathing this stuff so it feels more intense,” said Maria Cardona, Principal, Dewey Square Group.
Marketing Land reports that social media buzz is the main driver of the increased sales for brands with these type of ads which applies to negative feedback as well. When ads spark conversation and controversy, much like Nike’s ad featuring Colin Kaepernick, Gillette’s video highlights the risk more brands are willing to absorb by taking a stand on social issues.
“As for Nike, it’s position was very scientific. The campaign demonstrates Nike knows its audience despite the conservative backlash. Online sales surged after the debut of the Kaepernick ad. Nike is selling to millennials who expect their companies to be socially involved,” said Richard Levick, Esq., Chairman and CEO of LEVICK.
“But this is difficult stuff, continued Levick. Churchill said, ‘Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.’ For the first time in history, we’re now existing in a democracy, not a republic – that is direct democracy, not representative democracy.
It means that ideas, policy, messages, brands all travel from the grassroots up, not Madison Avenue, Constitution Avenue and 10 Downing Street down. That puts enormous power and responsibility into the hands of citizens. Are we up for it?
Right now, we all find our preferred truth before reason. We agree with a conclusion instantaneously, and then only read and become reinforced by like-minded influencers.
How do we operate in a post-silo era? How do we reverse our epistemology back to where we were, so that we gather facts like rosebuds, where ye may, and then come to conclusions? The tragic and larger question is how capable are we, each of us, to exist in a democracy. We’re willing to rush to judgement so quickly,” Levick added.
Frank Sesno, Professor and Director of the School of Media and Public Affairs, George Washington University said, “There’s more a blurring of opinions, less information and diminished explanatory journalism because that’s what audiences demand. We’re living in a public and digital sphere where accusations and conspiracies travel faster than trust and science. It’s rapid-fire information and rapid-fire decision-making often driven by ideology and polarization. People hang out with those who agree with them.”
Companies Must Be More Purpose-Driven
Corporations are being pushed to change—to dial down their single-minded pursuit of financial gain and pay closer attention to their impact on employees, customers, communities, and the environment. Corporate social responsibility from the sidelines is no longer enough with a variety of conflicting pressures including investors’ realization that short-term profitability and long-term sustainability are sometimes in conflict. For reasons like these, a growing number of business leaders now understand that they must embrace both financial and social goals. — Harvard Business Review, March – April 2019.
Lisa Osborne Ross, President of Edelman, Washington, D.C . said, “I was struck by the fact that everyone on both panels gave Nike as an example. I was struck by the fact that people talked about the concept as CEOs being political. We don’t see this as political. We see this as being human.
Now, we work in an environment where the people we work with and the people that buy our products and services are activists and they have an opinion and they express their opinion. Our data shows that seventy-percent of people either buy or boycott based on how they feel about your brand. It’s not political, it’s natural to have a point-of-view. You cannot operate in this environment without having a purpose.”
Today, consumers are no longer investing their time, money and attention in brands that just sell quality products at fair prices. Recent Accenture Strategy research finds that they are making carefully considered choices to buy from companies that stand for a purpose they personally identify with that reflects their values and beliefs. –– Forbes, January 2019.
Peter Carson, Managing Director, Public Affairs, North America of Weber Shandwick | Powell Tate said, “The war for talent among companies is extraordinary. And there’s the added piece that not only once you recruit, you have to retain them because it’s a candidate’s market. By 2020, 50 percent of the workforce will be millennials. There’s a lot of conversation about millennials that’s judgmental. But, they’re the largest workforce in history. To add to that, Boomers are reaching retirement which is driving companies to be purpose-driven. The big challenge and you don’t have a set of values or a purpose, people may leave,” Carson added.
CEOs Need to Be More Accessible
Steven Pearlstein, Columnist, The Washington Post said, “There’s been a generational seat change in terms of media relations at big companies and they’re not set-up to handle anything other than crisis communications with business reporters. CEOs don’t have their phone numbers or emails on their websites, or anything other than a drop box. When you do get a response it’s from a 24-year old who often doesn’t know anything and only wants to know what your deadline is and what your questions are. If you’re lucky. you’ll get a response to the questions you send in an email.”
Lisa Osborne Ross added, “Twenty-four -year-olds are smart, trained and have a role. They’re our future.”
Gabriel Debenedetti, National Correspondent, New York Magazine said, “The question of access is a constant question for reporters in any field. The question now is particularly relevant as we discuss this new business environment because everything feels political. It’s much easier to cover an institution or a person if you get to know them as an individual and truly understand their motivations beyond profit and get to know the decision-makers.
Companies are reaching out more proactively. As long as your not just talking about an earnings call, your going to have to deal with the same group of people talking about and writing about them. it’s a fluid environment.”
Steven Pearlstein added, “ You always want a front-line person. Companies have directors of media relations, and senior directors of media relations and somehow they’re too busy. Media relations is set to keep you away and you’re the problem. It reflects the leadership’s general viewpoint about the media. I think It’s a good reflection of the priority. Some media relations people report to HR, some report to legal, and some report to marketing, It didn’t used to be that way. There used to be external and community communications.
The reason for press relations is to communicate with my employees, my customers, and my shareholders. But the idea of being part of a system in which we help the world understand how business works and trust the mainstream media to help get the message across in a general way doesn’t seem to be how businesses view their responsibility anymore. Amazon has very proudly a media strategy, ‘No comment.’ Other companies and have taken a page from that.”
Peter Carson: “It’s a pendulum swing. The whole idea of having owned media is what we want to get our message out. But, that’s what advertising is about. What is doesn’t provide is third-party validation of that message. Companies need both and a mix. Many in the C-Suite say they’re too busy or what if there’s a question I don’t want to answer? It’s a mistake. You do need the validation because people know when they’re being marketed to. Outreach comes on a proactive side. It’s different on the reactive side.”
Lisa Osborne Ross: “There’s a new type of CEO who understands that he or she is required to be external, have a point-of-view and the media should be unbiased and fair. This new activist CEO has to be reflective of the activist consumer and have a relationship with the media.”
Gabriel Debenedetti added, “Generally, when a brand is reaching out and says, ‘I want to send you a press release,’ there’s a great deal of skepticism. It’s very important to have some degree of transparency and let people let up and down the line talk. Not everything is decided by the C-Suite. “
Steven Pearlstein: “Newspapers can’t afford business reporters. It is half of our fault, at least. They are few business reporters left that know about companies and we can’t teach them. But, that’s a reality we need to deal with. If someone reaches out we can’t make assumptions that they’re not the right person.”
Peter Carson: “Like social media, we can micro-target the media. The question of what am I pitching and what I’m trying to get out about a product may be best pitched to trade reporters. With national reporters, you must do your homework. Why am I talking to the New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal? Sometimes, for this particular need this isn’t the answer.”
Back to Politics: The Current State of the Media
Maria Cardona: “The President has used diversity to divide us. In America, a real leader needs to bring everyone together. Unfortunately, what we have seen in the last two years is somebody who is only interested in focusing on probably about a fourth of the American electorate.”
Michael Caputo: “I like the battle of ideas. There’s not so much of this. The divide is difficult. The media sometimes makes it worse. But, if I don’t go on TV, my views aren’t being heard. But, I get a lot of death threats.”
Maria Cardona: “Politics has always been rough and tumble. Social media magnifies the division more than it does anything else. We’re living and breathing this stuff because of social media.”
Terry McAuliffe: “No one’s going to agree with everyone all the time. I had to work in a bipartisan environment. You must govern and reach out to all sides. There’s a lot of noise and you can’t pay attention to it. The country’s very split. The divide we have as great as I’ve ever seen.”
Michael Caputo: “I would advise people in public relations to never go into politics. I would never again work for another campaign. I lost so much.”
Terry McAuliffe: “But, at the same while corporations are distancing themselves from politics, they’re also embracing it. Take Nike, which turned out to be a really bright move, embracing Colin Kaepernick. Gillette was viewed as a true leader and that’s a good thing. It goes from client-to-client and PR-advisor to PR-advisor.
In the political world, branding is so important. You’re not doing to get Google, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft or Salesforce coming to your state if you discriminate against women and members of the LGBT community. Anytime, when you have negative publicity, it’s devastating to states. But, to govern, you have to have moral leadership,” McAuliffe added.
Too Much Transparency vs. The Public’s Right to Know?
Ty Cobb, Former White House Special Counsel to President Trump said, “There should be as much transparency as possible, but it comes in a strict legal setting. Process is simple. A report gets submitted confidentially to the Attorney General and he reports that he received it. There’s no obligation to make the report subject.”
Stefan Passantino, Partner, Practice Group Chair, Government Relations, Political Law & Public Policy, Michael Best said,” Everyone understands the desire for transparency. The public has the right to know. But, the process through which The Mueller probe was able to generate the information it has but it is different, it was compulsory. Everyone likes to read a Bob Woodward book and get different points of views. It doesn’t work that way with the Special Counsel. You are going to go in a talk. The government has the ability to obtain massive of amounts of information there is a natural tension.”
Ty Cobb: “The reality is there are legal considerations. There are two statutes. One involves Grand Jury secrecy and one involves the discretion of the Attorney General. Bob Mueller has done an effective job in the indictments and telling the story he has. On everyone’s collusion meter they want to see where things land.”
Suzanne Rich Folsom, Former General Counsel, Chief Compliance Officer & SVP-Government Affairs, U.S. Steel said, “From a Corporate America standpoint, corporations would just like it to all go away because corporations care about shareholder value. When you leave the beltway, it’s amazing how little attention people pay to how much is going on in Washington. People would just like a resolution.”
The discussion of “Truth on Trial” covered a huge range of topics from legal to politics to corporations, brands, the “public,” public relations, communications and the country’s divide. Depending on your profession, your values, your age, your party and many other factors, there’s not one answer.
For me, truth is a fact-based debate and is a respectful exchange of ideas. The panelists successfully achieved this dialogue and presented enough information for each of us to decide, “What does truth mean to you?” It’s our responsibility to speak up and speak out because every voice counts, (or, your voice matters).
About the Author: Wendy Glavin is Founder and CEO of Wendy Glavin, a NYC full-service agency. Wendy is a 20-year veteran of corporate, agency, consulting and small business ownership. She specializes in B2B2C marketing communications, PR, social and digital media. Her website is: https://wendyglavin.com/. Contact her at: firstname.lastname@example.org.