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California. Pic by Ansgar Baums

Can and should GR teams campaign?

“Political campaigning” has a magic ring to it. It’s glamorous. Fast action. And you know at some point if you have lost or won. In short, it’s everything that normal Government Relations work isn’t. We want to highlight this obvious difference at the start because it’s an interesting contrast to an “undercurrent” in the discussion about what GR is supposed to be about. But let’s do this systematically.

1. What is a political campaign?

In a very narrow sense, political campaigns are about getting elected. This is the trade of politicians and their advisors. The size of this advisory market is largely determined by the political system in a specific country. The US is the behemoth, per presidential year election cycle almost $10 billion dollars are spent. A senate seat campaign costs you almost $10 million. In comparison, campaigning advisory is much smaller and nimble in countries like Germany.

We start with this narrow definition of campaigning because it apparently has impact on how corporations approach campaigning, as well. The bigger the cash flow in a political system, the higher the threshold for companies to get heard the more important it is to “get through the noise”. The question of campaigning therefore becomes more urgent than in less cash-intense countries.

In order to make sense of “campaigning” for corporations, however, we suggest a broader definition: Campaigning is a very specific mode of action defined by three elements: It’s a (1) concentrated effort to (2) achieve a very specific goal in (3) a specific timeframe. If this all sounds a bit like military strategy, you are spot on. The stratagem of “force concentration” was developed by Prussian military planners in the 19th century. Here is how Carl von Clausewitz described it:

Two basic principles (…) underlie all strategic planning. (…) The first principle is: Act with the utmost concentration. The second principle is: Act with the utmost speed. (…) The talent of the strategist is to identify the decisive point and to concentrate everything on it, removing forces from secondary fronts and ignoring lesser objectives.

Or, as military historian Basil Liddell Hart summed it up: “All the lessons of war can be reduced to a single word: concentration.“ No wonder campaigning is a tempting option for GR teams looking for “oomph”. We don’t want to take the military similarities too far, but it’s worth to highlight that force concentration is a challenge for all organizations. It seems to be almost alien to the DNA of most organizations who strive for predictability, stability and “standard operating procedures”. Big org works best in a stable environment. Spot the problem.

2. Why is corporate GR usually bad at campaigning?

Our experience tells us that very few corporate GR organizations are set up to campaign — maybe less than 5%. We see two main reasons:

  • Spread thin: GR organizations are usually structured along geographical responsibilities and are involved in a plethora of topics at the same time. The daily churn consumes a lot of the resources available (80% at least), so there are very limited capabilities to actually achieve any force concentration.
  • Different skill set: The majority of GR managers does not have a campaigning, but a policy expert background. Policy experts are used to long timeframes and slow processes. They actually excel in the opposite of what campaigning is about. Storytelling, media influencing — usually not their strong suit. There are few to none GR job descriptions we saw that highlight campaigning skills as a key asset.

Point taken, this is a generalization and there are plenty of examples of companies campaigning successfully. However, we maintain our estimate that this is true for a very small number of corporations — usually those with the biggest GR teams in those industries who are heavily regulated or impacted by governments.

3. Should GR organizations campaign?

Our short answer is: It depends. Campaigning is not a goal in itself — it needs to match your overall GR and corporate strategy goals. That’s rather self-evident, so let’s take it one step further: We think your GR team should be able of doing it — but be very selective when to pull the trigger. Here is why:

Why you should be able to do it

The simple answer is: The societal environment for corporations has changed dramatically over the last decade. As we have laid out in our introduction article to the GR blog, we now live in a “post-Washington consensus” world. Governments are building up leverage over the private sector. The public scrutiny of tech companies in particular has increased (as part of the “Techlash”).

We also live in a world with a very fragmented media system and ailing “political aggregators”, i.e. parties who functioned as gatekeepers and provided some predictability in the political process, are less effective in organizing political processes. Tom Friedman rightly highlighted the role of “super-empowered individuals” in a modern society: Basically your blogger, who can take up a whole party by a single video rant. The consequences of these two trends are significant. Companies need to be quicker to respond and able to overcome “noise” in an already crowded arena of political actors. If you want to get through with your message, your regular policy brief might not be the right choice anymore.

Why you should be very selective

Here is our main point: “Campaigning” is not the “Champion’s league of lobbying”. It’s not an achievement level, but a specific modus operandi which success rate depends on the case.

First and foremost, other modi operandi might be more effective and efficient. A campaign implies exposure for a company. If you campaign, you lead an effort from the front and become visible. While this might be heroic, it is not always the best approach. Being a “fast follower” is often less cost-intensive and less risky. So if your company has no differentiated profile (i.e. is not the only one affected by a particular policy proposal), it is often the better choice to follow rather than to lead. As we have highlighted in our article about policy positions, it’s best to think about campaigning as one option on a continuum. The appetite to become politically exposed is usually very small in a company — so don’t campaign if it’s not necessary. Sounds obvious, but let’s be honest: We all wouldn’t mind some more glam and excitement in our daily work. We urge resisting this temptation.

Becoming a “leader” and campaigning is also easier said than done. The resource investment is usually considerable — and it requires a cross-functional approach. We cannot imagine any political campaign being effective without integrating media work. If your company’s media outreach is focused on products, you might find it challenging to onboard your PR team and get a political campaign in their calendars if all media KPI’s are attuned to products. This can obviously be overcome by long-term planning and a change of PR strategy, but it will take considerable time to get there.

Figure 1 visualizes your modus operandi option on the horizontal axis and the relationship to exponentially increasing costs once you go beyond “fast following”. Evidently, campaigning needs to be very selective.

Overall, we recommend a healthy dose of realism about your capabilities to campaign. Nothing is worse than a half-baked attempt. In reality, most corporations are “regulation takers”, not “regulation shapers” — accordingly, GR is more often than not about making sure a company is compliant than trying to single-handedly shaping regulation.

4. If you want to do it: Five recommendations

Here is what we recommend:

  1. Organisational set-up: Connect GR with Media Relations and Marketing. Force concentration of a campaign takes place in the environment of a “media democracy”. More often than not your corporate campaign might combine classical GR tools (bilateral meetings, cooperation with think tanks etc) with Media Relations and Marketing. This is easier said than done. Media Relations and Marketing usually follow their own KPIs, which tend to be product-centric. It can take considerable time to align GR, Media Relations and Marketing — don’t underestimate it.
  2. Messaging: Storytelling is key to connect your issue to larger societal narratives. A very common mistake is to structure a campaign around a company-centric narrative. What is important to you might not be that urgent to everyone else. Take the example of 3D Printing: While 3DP companies and tech aficionados will find this topic extremely cool and important, political decision-makers will find it very hard to justify a prioritization of your related issues. “Just cool” does not make it to the top of the political agenda — well, unless you reframe your story and connect 3DP to hot topics like the overstretch of global supply chains, resilience against crises, or “creating new manufacturing jobs in the heartland”.
  3. Changing minds by creating a decision point: Your story might be compelling and connected to big societal issues — but it will not get you anywhere if your campaign does not trigger change. Changing minds works best if you can create a narrative that leads to a decision point: If we continue like before, it will lead to A (which we do not like). But if we really want to reach B, this is what we need to do… It may sound simple, but only few campaigns reach this stage.
  4. Outreach: Invest in infrastructure, even if it is costly and painful. Let’s be honest: Your usual GR team does not have the infrastructure — nor the skills — to organize an outreach campaign. This is a field where GR teams could learn a lot from NGO’s, who are dependent on mobilizing their audience: How to use email effectively (ever heard of A/B testing?), which social media channels are really useful for your purpose — and how to organize a content channel accordingly?… Hiring external professionals to get you up to speed makes a lot of sense.
  5. Ownership: Don’t spread responsibilities. Campaigns aiming at GR goals should be owned by GR. This includes the IT infrastructure — don’t rely on systems where you need buy-in from other divisions for small decisions. Ideally, you can run tools like Mailchimp by yourself.

Happy campaigning!

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Ansgar Baums

Ansgar Baums

Government Relations at Zoom | cyclist | traveller