By Trey Richardson
Momentum matters in American politics. This is just as true for candidates running for office as it is for political action committees. Due to the current health crisis, momentum for many of my PAC colleagues has stopped altogether or has been greatly curtailed.
Serving on the front lines as both a PAC professional with committees and programs of my own and as a consultant to the market at large, I have noticed that two distinct and opposing approaches have gripped the market in recent weeks: Those who are standing down versus those who are leaning in.
Those who are standing down are doing so because they believe they are being sensitive to their members and employees in these difficult times. Experience suggests this path will work against them in the long run. This path will lead to losses that could have dire consequences for the future of their government affairs and PAC programs. Without awareness, education and actionable activities, constituents remove themselves from political enterprises. On the other hand, those who are leaning in are doing so in a manner not related to soliciting for their PACs, but rather under the auspices of transparency and information sharing with stakeholders. By sharing the efforts of their government affairs and PAC programs during this time, they are building goodwill and a knowledge-base that may be leveraged for activism later. Their current actions will generate appreciation, participation and contributions, thus maintaining future momentum.
As my colleague Kristin Morgan pointed out in her recent article, Embracing Change, people are not used to change and often don’t have a backup plan for when things go wrong. As a result, we experience change as a rollercoaster. We move through an emotional journey from shock to problem solving, but not all at the same pace. While it’s taken most of us several weeks to move from one point to the other, some are still wringing their hands. However, a few business and health care groups went from initial shock to problem solving immediately. Why? Because they have contingency plans in place and urgent federal policy issues in front of them. The CARES Act, medical supply chains and the like have driven these groups to implement advocacy and political activities in a time when most were just beginning to understand what was happening. Panic is not a positive state for business, politics or leadership. Planning for uncertain times is the best way to ensure long-term value for your political program.
Regardless of the current state of affairs, some organizations are doing more than others to engage their stakeholders and help their congressional champions. Townhall meetings, national calls and webinars with members and employees about how the situation is affecting their business or industry are becoming commonplace. In this crisis, educational materials and information about the holistic value of government affairs programming – grassroots, legislative advocacy and finance – are an important component of these communications.
The challenges we face are many. From convening meetings with decision makers and members of Congress to cutting contribution checks to candidate campaigns, we find ourselves struggling to work through much of the process to conduct “business as usual.” More than ever, we need to turn toward our peers in the political market who are taking action and implementing best practices for guidance as to how the community should engage. This is when groups like the National Association of Business Political Action Committees (NABPAC) shine. NABPAC has completed case studies, virtual peer roundtables, best practice materials, crisis management documents from experts and even a COVID-19 resource center with more to come.
According to Micaela Isler, NABPAC’s Executive Director, “These activities are important to stabilizing and ensuring business PAC professionals have the resources and information they need to succeed. What NABPAC is providing and will continue to provide not only helps its members, but every PAC professional. Our primary responsibility is to the business PAC market. We are doing everything in our power to help. From legal resources to the PACHelp Hotline to virtual gatherings and resources; the combined effect is that it all greatly benefits our cause, that of our members and the PAC community.”
Part of maintaining momentum is the PAC market’s ability to showcase its strengths to candidates, elected officials and stakeholders. Given the recent negative PAC rhetoric the industry faced before the pandemic hit, business PACs have a unique opportunity to be the heroes of this election cycle. Individual contributions to candidates have and will continue to slow for the next few months. This does not mitigate the need for campaign dollars. With the average U.S. House race and U.S. Senate race costing some $2.5 million and $11 million respectively, candidates will soon become increasingly frantic to raise dollars as November nears. If this crisis has shown us anything, it’s that we need to ensure pro-business candidates remain in office to secure the future for employers and employees in America. Being there for your champions in their time of need matters, not just by cutting campaign checks but by embarking on advertising and engagement efforts like independent expenditures, issue advocacy and partisan communications.
To create and maintain momentum during this time, lean in. Lean in by getting your political program’s infrastructure in place. Lean in by being transparent and honest in your communications with stakeholders and constituents. Lean in by demonstrating value to candidates, officeholders and the media. What political and PAC professionals do right now will dictate the future success of their programs and the perceived value of government affairs by their stakeholders and the political class in the weeks, months and years to come. Jim Collins got it right in his book Good to Great. Good is the enemy of great. Great political programs are a matter of a conscious choice to be disciplined for the long term through sustained performance. Standing down today in an effort to be just good oppresses your opportunity to be great tomorrow. As such, keep the momentum moving in the right direction to create enduring value and lean in.
Trey Richardson is managing partner of Sagac Public Affairs and GR Pro, national firms that provide communications, market research, fundraising, issue advocacy and independent expenditure solutions to hundreds of political, nonprofit and corporate organizations. Trey has served the business political community for three decades as a leading political practitioner, advisor, author and consultant to more than 325 business groups and candidates. For more than a decade he has served as the PACHelp Hotline advisor to the National Association of Business Political Action Committees.