How loud is loud enough: calibrating corporate engagement in a volatile election

By Michael Hotra, Matt Reid, Liz Sidoti 

In this hyper-partisan, fraught election year, wouldn’t it be nice if corporate leaders could simply run their businesses? It’s nearly impossible when the increasingly acerbic political noise stokes passions among employees, customers, shareholders and other stakeholders. Now, roughly four months before Election Day, companies are grappling with how, if at all, they should navigate this election year, and when, if at all, they should engage.

For corporate leaders, the challenge around communicating about politics has grown considerably as the nation’s politics have become even more personal, partisan and divisive – and there’s evidence that this tricky environment has triggered more of a reticence to engage. A recent poll by The Conference Board found that 60 percent of corporate executives say today’s political environment is more difficult to navigate than four years ago, largely because of political polarization and employee expectations. They have seen the corporate fallout from missteps and social firestorms – think Disney in Florida or Bud Light with Dylan Mulvaney – and recognize that the margin for error is razor thin. The environment is so tricky, some corporate leaders are even rethinking traditionally safe communications, like encouraging employees to vote, because some stakeholders view even that simple effort as a partisan act.

Despite this reluctance, corporate leaders are facing pressure to communicate on politics, especially as younger generations of workers and customers demand to know where the brands for which they work and support stand on political issues. Political chatter that used to be mumbled around the water cooler now is broadcast on social media, sometimes generating so much noise that the entire enterprise’s reputation is affected. Corporate leaders are left with few, if any, good options, facing the negative and potentially noisy reaction from employees and customers if they don’t act, or a public and political buzzsaw if they do.

So, what can corporate leaders do? They must calibrate their communications, using their business objectives, corporate culture, mission and values as guides. Executives need to plan and articulate today how the company will approach communicating around the election and educate both internal and external stakeholders about what they can expect, if anything, should either Biden or Trump win, or if the outcome is litigated and uncertain, for weeks.

In general, corporate leaders need to focus on communicating about their business and making sure to address the concerns of their primary constituents, whether its employees, customers, shareholders or partners. Such stakeholders will certainly ask political questions, but answers should be carefully thought out to “do no harm,” and relationship managers should be armed with appropriate responses that communications professionals have developed.

A few rules of thumb:

  • Be authentic. Let company culture, mission, core values and company policy guide communications.
  • Avoid picking sides, unless leaders determine that’s in the business’ best interests and provide managers communications tools use with employees.
  • Understand – and adhere to – precedent in communicating around elections even though this year is unprecedented in so many ways.
  • Plan for the can’t-hold-your-tongue moments. Issues or policies debated may require the company or leaders themselves to weigh in.
  • Determine the decider. Identify in advance the decision-making team for whether and how to communicate.
  • Expect to be name-checked. Have a plan if a candidate calls out the company negatively to avoid becoming a “political football.”
  • Consider whether the company has an election role. Those that do may need to engage, such as a tech company combatting dis/misinformation.

In a year like no other, companies should expect hard conversations, tough choices and controversy. And there are choices beyond jumping into the deep end of the pool or pretending there is no water. But given the magnitude of the issues and the reputational risks of miscalculating, planning ahead and calibrating based on the specific needs of the business and its stakeholders is key. This is no year to “wing it.”