6 Keys to Internal + External Communications Success During a Volatile 2024
In a nation divided, professional communicators are trying to work effectively in a news cycle fraught with emotionally charged social and geopolitical issues – from the Israel-Hamas war to social justice issues, climate change, gun control and more. People are angry and polarized as a result, and now we’re adding national politics to this volatile mix with the U.S. general election less than one year away.
As we head toward what promises to be a contentious election year, now is the time for your organization to ensure that your communications house in built to withstand the storm. That’s the sage advice from a panel of experts assembled for Peppercomm’s latest Fireside chat. These three panelists recently joined the chat to discuss the challenges and opportunities in these unstable times:
Tucker Eskew, founding partner of Vianovo, and a former White House advisor. In the White House, Tucker helped lead opinion during some of the nation’s most important policy debates. At Vianovo, he leads crisis communications and reputation management for leadership in many areas.
Lisa Kaplan, founder of Alethea, is a former digital director on a successful U.S. Senate campaign. She has briefed U.S., NATO, E.U. and G-7 policymakers and officials on disinformation. At Alethea, Lisa helps clients navigate the new digital reality and protect against threats stemming from disinformation, misinformation and social media.
Jackie Kolek, as chief innovation officer at Peppercomm, Jackie pioneered the firm’s proprietary crisis management methodology, RepCompass. She has helped dozens of clients manage business and social issues and mitigate active crisis events.
The panel agreed that every organization should review and update their strategies for internal and external communications during what is sure to be a volatile year to come. Read on for six tips on how to successfully navigate this minefield going forward.
- Prepare now: Establish a clear, repeatable process for deciding if, when, and how to communicate on social and political issues – both internally and externally. This includes identifying your key decision-makers, setting criteria for evaluating issues and defining your organization’s position on topics aligned with your purpose, your business model and your audiences’ values. As one of our Fireside Chat panelists pointed out, stakeholders are more likely to accept a company speaking out if the issue is related to their business. This will help you avoid falling into a problematic Bud Light scenario. Keep in mind the huge controversy the beer brand caused when it ran a marketing campaign this spring that angered many loud voices among its customer base. Bud Light’s sales plummeted and still have not recovered.
- Align actions and words: Audiences have become more skeptical of companies sharing performative statements or “thoughts and prayers” on a controversial issue. They’ve become wary of brands that take a stand but a) put no real action behind it; or b) have policies that actually counteract their stand. For example, a brand that “supports” diversity and inclusion but has a board comprised of white men. Before speaking out, consider whether or not your involvement will meaningfully impact the status quo. How are your words backed by actions now and in the past? Also very important: Be sure to review your track record of action and investment on an issue. Take an honest assessment of any potential “skeletons in the closet” – anything your organization has done in the past (or not done) that could damage your credibility on any issue.
- Follow the money: Make sure your communications team is aware of any political donations from your political action committee (PAC) or your executives. This information is in the public record. Communicators should be ready to address questions, rather than ignore them. For example, a query about your PAC’s donations might be answered with, “Our PAC makes decisions based on alignment with our corporate values, not along party lines or political ideology.”
- Respond, don’t react: The emotionally intense and divisive aspects of our current culture often tempt us to see response strategies in black-and-white terms. However, there’s a spectrum of approaches that lie between complete silence and taking a public stand on an issue. For example, our panel suggested the option of rising above ideological discussions and focusing on civic engagement and community building. For example, supporting programs that encourage people to register to vote, help people travel to their local polling places and improve voting access can be a win-win strategy for your organization and our democracy.
- Prepare and support employees: No matter how you decide to engage as an organization, you can be sure that employees will be following and talking about political and social issues. Extend your communications strategies to include employee preparation and support – and review/update policies now before election season really heats up. The Fireside Chat panel suggested creating standards to guide employees’ discourse, reminding them to be respectful of one another. It’s also important to point out to employees that in their personal lives, they continue to represent the company. They should be mindful of what they say to others and what they post/share on social media. Be very clear on what constitutes inappropriate communication and the consequences of it.
- Combat Misinformation: On a related note, our panel pointed out that this election season is sure to witness a flood of disinformation and misinformation campaigns, with bad actors spreading false facts to try to sway public opinion. Be proactive in educating employees about misinformation and disinformation. Provide reliable sources of information (e.g., rumorguard.com) and organize educational sessions with outside speakers who can teach them how to separate fact from fiction. Encourage employees to report any disinformation or misinformation about the company, and advise them against engaging with it.
Also ensure your organization owns all URLs and social handles that could be tied to your company and/or brands. Bad actors are known to create fake websites and social accounts to “steal” a brand’s identity and spread false information. For example, if your organization’s social handles are @AcmeCorp, consider creating accounts for @AcmeCo, @TheRealAcmeCorp and similar to prevent others from using them for nefarious purposes.
Professional communicators should begin preparing now for any eventuality, as the next 12 months (and most likely beyond) are likely to be a bumpy ride. The leaders who view this time as an opportunity to enhance their communications strategies and build stronger relationships with their audiences – and not a time to hide their heads in the sand and pretend outside issues don’t affect them – will be better positioned to succeed no matter which side wins the election.