January 25, 2024
How to Prepare Your Professional Services Firm for a Contentious Election Cycle
Contemporary political rhetoric is rife with false binaries that make it difficult for executive leaders to know when to speak out and what to say. And in 2024, as most of the world’s population participates in elections, this challenge will only continue to grow.
According to the Financial Times, the outcomes of more than 70 global elections, including those in eight of the top 10 most populous countries and many of the world’s oldest democracies, will play a pivotal role in framing the future of democracy as we know it. The U.S. election is particularly critical due to the position we hold in the world. Given the nature of politics in America — and the heightened tension that accompanies our collective fear around democracy’s decline — we all know just how divisive the coming months are likely to become.
The inflated rhetoric of the U.S. election will surely create moments when leaders are called upon to affirm or reject controversial positions. We know these are difficult situations, as we’ve all seen leaders caught off guard in the recent past. With the repeal of Roe v. Wade and the start of the war in Gaza, many leaders discovered that they risked alienating some segment of their core audience regardless of what they said — or whether they said anything at all.
Mindful of these recent experiences, there is no excuse for being caught off guard again. Stakeholders will demand a clear response and point-of-view from your organization. The time to decide how you will respond to the next social or political controversy is not when it lands on your doorstep. We know that it is coming, whether it’s tomorrow or in six months. The time to prepare is now.
Why Do You Need to Think About the Election Now?
We’ve all seen unprepared leaders lose control of difficult conversations. But if you can’t skillfully and adeptly navigate these pivotal moments as a leader, you risk undermining your own authority and harming your organization’s reputation. To participate skillfully in the conversations that matter most, you can’t afford to be reactive. Foresight, forethought, and careful preparation are key.
Think back to the summer of 2022 and the conversation around Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health. Despite knowing a landmark decision was coming for over six weeks, many leaders scrambled to figure out how to respond once the news broke.
One notable exception was Ropes & Gray Chairwoman Julie Jones, who released a powerful, heartfelt and thoughtful statement just moments after the Supreme Court announced its decision. Her readiness to communicate her position set her apart.
Immigration, reproductive rights and the growing conflict in the Mideast are just a few of the issues that will take center stage in 2024. These topics are far too important to ignore — and their complexity deserves your advance consideration.
Three Steps to Establish Your Firm’s Communication Platform
Navigating difficult communication challenges is not for the faint of heart — and you shouldn’t go it alone. Engaging PR counsel to develop authoritative points of view before it’s time to release a statement is wise and prudent. When you get ahead of the news cycle, you’ll be able to communicate with confidence, knowing your messaging lines up with your firm’s priorities and reinforces your position as an authority worth heeding.
A good PR partner will know how to guide you in positioning your firm for the executive communications challenges that lie ahead. At a minimum, the positioning process should involve these three steps.
1. Assemble a Representative Selection of Stakeholders
You need a representative cross-section of stakeholders at the table to ensure your decisions reflect the values and spectrum of diversity of your firm.
The process you follow to frame a response to controversy is just as important as the response itself. After all, it will be impossible for you to please your entire audience no matter what you say. But by demonstrating that you followed a reasoned, logical process — and by communicating about it openly and transparently — you can minimize blowback and prevent the informational leaks that cause reputational harm.
The Kalven Committee at the University of Chicago
The University of Chicago provides an instructive example of what a collaborative decision-making process can look like — and shines light on the value of thoughtful, open communication.
In 1967, then-University president George W. Beadle convened a multidisciplinary faculty committee to examine the role the University should play in social and political action. The resulting Kalven Committee report includes the following statements:
- “The university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic. It is…a community of scholars. To perform its mission in the society, a university must sustain an extraordinary environment of freedom of inquiry and maintain an independence from political fashions, passions, and pressures.”
- “The neutrality of the university as an institution arises then not from a lack of courage nor out of indifference and insensitivity. It arises out of respect for free inquiry and the obligation to cherish a diversity of viewpoints.”
- “From time-to-time instances will arise in which the society, or segments of it, threaten the very mission of the university and its values of free inquiry. In such a crisis, it becomes the obligation of the university as an institution to oppose such measures and actively to defend its interests and its values.”
In the span of a few pages, the Kalven Committee articulated the values the University holds dear, argued why maintaining neutrality is the best reflection of those values, and laid out the exceptions that would lead the University to set neutrality aside and take a stand.
Did some University stakeholders disagree with the outcome of the Kalven Committee’s work? Undoubtedly. But the report remains in place today and continues to prove useful in guiding the University’s actions.
2. Align Your Positions With Your Firm’s Values
What are your firm’s values? What do you stand for? And how do your values connect you to your audience?
It’s unlikely that your firm needs to participate in every conversation or respond to every news headline. Part of communicating with authority is knowing which issues matter most to your audience and focusing your energies there.
As illustrated in the Kalven Committee example, your values and your audience’s needs should guide your communications strategy. Therefore, to decide how and when to speak out on social issues, bring the stakeholders you recruited in Step 1 together to explore questions like:
- Who is our audience, and what do they value? Are there factions and opposing viewpoints we need to consider?
- What issues impact our audience most acutely? Will they expect us to respond when those issues enter the headlines?
- Which issues intersect with our mission as an organization?
- Given the multiple constituencies we serve, what do we think is the proper role of the firm in the social and political sphere?
- What are our core values, and how have we expressed those values in the past?
- What is our history of social and political engagement?
Sometimes the more you think about an issue, the more challenging it will be to articulate a position. That’s normal. Again, outside counsel can help you wrestle with these complexities and arrive at the best course of action for your firm.
3. Make Your Firm’s Positions Public (and Communicate Your “Why”)
Reasonable decisions made with strong rationales will still be met with pushback. That’s especially true if they’re made behind closed doors and without transparency.
That’s why it’s so important to craft a statement about how your firm will respond when public discourse is fraught. Then publish that for your internal and external audiences to see and refer to as needed throughout the election cycle and beyond. This is your foundation – it should be set in stone.
Your goal should be to communicate openly and remove the element of surprise. No matter what position you take, some portions of your audience may not like what you have to say. But removing the uncertainty goes a long way in reducing disappointment and outrage.
Your audience will want to know:
- Who you invited into the decision-making process
- The questions you asked and the nuances you considered
- How you arrived at your conclusions
- Why you believe your position aligns with your firm’s mission and values
- What your position means to stakeholders
Don’t forget to ask for feedback. Welcoming the opinions and ideas of your internal and external stakeholders — and responding to their questions and concerns — is an effective way to build trust. Furthermore, inviting your audience to critique and iterate on your ideas is a defining characteristic of true authority.
Meet the 2024 Election Cycle Head-On
Savvy executives scan the horizon for looming threats and proactively put strategies in place to mitigate them. There’s no question that the 2024 election will bring plenty of communication challenges for your firm to overcome.
You might not know exactly what will precipitate the need for your firm to engage in a high-stakes conversation. But with the election news cycle ramping up, you can’t afford to wait for that moment to come. Let’s work together to figure it out now.
About the Executive Positioning Practice
Exemplifying Greentarget’s commitment to being a trusted advisor to clients, our Executive Positioning team provides C-suite executives (managing partners, CEOs, executive committees, and boards) with insights to anticipate, understand and respond to important global and social developments, analyzing key issues that can impact reputation and compel leaders to communicate.