Image courtesy of flickr user David B Young

Sometimes you need to shout out loud in public affairs

Shouting at politicians through the media is not always a wise move. But as Apple and Virgin have both recently shown, sometimes it can be a very useful part of a public affairs strategy.

Tim Cook of Apple and Sir Richard Branson of Virgin have both used the media to complain about the actions of politicians. Cook believed that an EU ruling over how much tax it paid in Ireland was ‘maddening and political’. Critically he also tried to take apart the evidence base saying that ‘it’s clear that this comes from a political place, it has no basis in fact or in law’ and that it was ‘total political cr*p’. His comments are undoubtedly the opening shots in the approach to be taken by the Irish government and Apple in appealing against the decision. So ‘litigation PR’ in that sense.

Cook’s comments were less about the outrage that was undoubtedly felt and more about setting out the case against the decision but in a way that would capture headlines.

Similarly, Branson took exception to Jeremy Corbyn’s complaints that he couldn’t get a seat on a ‘ram-packed’ Virgin train. The ‘TrainGate’ episode took on a life of its own during the summer as Branson took to Twitter to release CCTV images and say that “Mr Corbyn & team walked past empty-unreserved seats then filmed claim train was ‘ram-packed’.”

But all this only works if it is indeed part of a strategy. Just shouting outrage may make a senior executive feel better but that does little to consider the potential political backlash that could follow or the impact on relationships. The critical element is to consider the risk before speaking out as Cook and Branson have done.

In the case of Branson’s feud with Corbyn, there seems to be little downside. Branson has the reputational capital and public popularity in the first place whereas Corbyn has a lot with supporters but seemingly less with voters as a whole.

If Corbyn does follow through on plans to nationalise the railways then Virgin loses out anyway. The more Branson can do to undermine Corbyn the less likely the plans are to come to fruition. Corbyn supporters have suggested that the ‘establishment’ is scared of the plans. But for Virgin, and others, there is a clear business impact that needs to be countered. John McDonnell’s subsequent calls for Branson to lose his knighthood did not seem to gain much traction.

There is a feeling that some executives prefer to stay out of politics but if, as I have suggested previously, government is going to intervene more then this is unlikely to hold up. Shareholders, funders, donors and others will expect senior managers to take a lead in dealing with the political risk.

Others have called for more digital leaders in organisations as a way of helping to rebuild trust. I would suggest that this ties in directly with dealing with political risk as well. But when should public affairs campaigns go to the media?

Here are 5 questions you should ask which will help with that decision.

  1. What is downside? Consider the possible backlash which could come from political audiences, advertisers, donors, regulators and a whole range of audiences. You need to think broadly across the organisation as well as the impact that could be felt in other parts of the business.
  2. Does it fit with the strategy? The messages delivered need to be consistent and add to the overall strategy. Simply expressing outrage will achieve little.
  3. Have you given the politicians a chance to solve your issue? What causes the most backlash is when politicians feel that you have gone to the media before giving them a chance to do something about the problem. In Cook and Branson’s cases the politicians had caused the issues in the first place.
  4. Does this fit with the profile and reputation of the people speaking out? It is always better to build on a solid reputation in the first place. This means having invested in that reputation in the first place. For Sir Philip Green, ex of British Home Stores (BHS), to try the approach would, for instance, not work. It would only bring more damage and backlash at the present time.
  5. Have you done this before? Campaigns should not over-use the media, especially when it comes to expressing outrage. Impact can be lost over time and you run the risk of simply being seen as a ‘rent-a-quote’ to bash politicians. Some have built a whole image around that, step forward Michael O’Leary of Ryanair, but that is a high risk strategy.

The media can play a valuable role in a public affairs campaign but only if carefully planned and considered. If it is good enough for Tim and Richard…!

Image courtesy of flickr user David B Young


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