By Dan Ekstein
This op-ed was first published by Morning Consult on May 14, 2021. Thank you to Morning Consult for distributing our thoughts.
Sixty-eight percent of Americans and 54 percent of employees think CEOs should take a stand on social issues. That does not mean executives should use the strategy and tactics they use for product failures, or crisis management, for policy or political disasters too.
When companies face business-related failures — a tainted product, for example — they start by issuing a strong statement from a company leader taking responsibility for the error. The company then outlines in detail how it will correct the situation and prevent it from happening again. If trust is re-established, the company gets to move on with its reputation intact.
This model does not work for political crises.
Practically, that is because there usually is not a single entity (and certainly not a business one) responsible for the error. And because one person or group is not alone responsible, the challenge to correct the error also falls more widely.
There also is this fact: political differences, public policy questions, and social upheaval are more nuanced than a data breach or business reputational crisis. Solving climate change or reducing economic inequality is not akin to correcting an electrical malfunction in an automobile’s electrical system. (And that problem is difficult enough to solve.)
Immediate, demonstrative statements tend to ignore this fact, which risks more divisiveness.
That is why the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a committed progressive still argued, “Real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time.”
Does the fact that the private sector cannot solve political and policy crises on their own mean companies should not engage?
But executives should not confuse themselves with elected officials. They are not the guardians of our democracy. They provide products, services, and jobs.
They must align that mission with their desire to effect social change.
I have spent my entire career trying to convince executives to get more involved in public policy. There is absolutely a role for the private sector to offer solutions that aim to heal our social divisions. But solutions should focus on the matters executives control: their own culture and hiring practices, for example. Businesses need to lead by action, not by words.
Executives also must meet their own workforces and customers where they are.
Corporations are made up of people. People who will not always agree and whose jobs depend on sound tax and regulated policy for their industry. Executives who harshly criticize policymakers one moment will find it more difficult to have their business interests heard.
Rather than crisis-oriented demonstrative statements, businesses should work internally to sustain and expand their efforts to engage employees in the political process. Consider this: the stated goal of enacting voting rights legislation is to bring more people to the polls. Companies should embrace that mission for themselves, and execute on it. They achieve that goal by investing more, not less, in education and grassroots efforts.
In practice, this means that companies must better integrate their government relations staff with every other business function, from human resources to internal communications. This task will help employees understand why companies are fighting for the issues they are fighting for — and how, as individuals, they play a role in influencing the policy matrix. It also means sustaining or establishing a strong political action committee and advocacy function so that the company can engage with lawmakers on the issues that employees and executives care about.
What companies should be striving for is to deepen their political engagement. Public statements, on their own, do not achieve that.
There is one more reason that political crises are not like business crises: when a car — or, let’s say, a vaccine — malfunctions there is a point at which the product is either fixed or taken off the shelves. The company can move on.
Representative democracy, on the other hand, is always a work in progress. Inequality, social media, demagogues, and demographic changes have exacerbated our divisions over the last several years. But ideological divisions are, by their nature, unsolvable because, as James Madison said, we all (executives, lawmakers, citizens) are fallible. Our current divisions cannot be solved by single statements or one-off proposals.
Enduring change only comes when all sides acknowledge their differences and work together to reach a durable compromise. Over every election cycle — through bipartisanship, compromise, and coalition-building — we must do the hard work that Ginsburg recognized was necessary.
Ekstein is a partner at Sagac Public Affairs. For more than 20 years, he has worked with for-profit and nonprofit organizations, including Capital One and JPMorgan Chase & Co., to expand their advocacy efforts. He has served as president of the National Association of Business Political Action Committees and as an adjunct professor at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management.