It’s an election year, which always presents a little more risk than usual to businesses operating in California. Incumbent legislators and new candidates will use it as an opportunity to find issues and causes that they can present to voters. Often, those new ideas contribute to California’s well-deserved reputation as the most active regulatory state in the nation. But if a company is not prepared, they’ll fall victim to the old adage “if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” For these reasons, company leaders may want to consider putting key precautions in place to keep their business off the menu and possibly ahead of the game.
Make sure you have an early warning system. Activist groups and government regulators who want to impose new regulations or costs on a particular business or industry often telegraph their plans in hearings, conferences, blogs and other communications. Tracking this chatter to get a sense of their motivation will give you a heads up on incoming legislative or regulatory proposals, and give you a chance to launch your own PR or advocacy strategy to try to shape the proposal before it becomes set in stone. In some cases, there’s an opportunity to resolve the issue before it becomes a legislative or regulatory fight.
Understand the policy preferences and current focus areas in Sacramento so you can shape government decisions for the benefit of your company. While most mature companies have a government relations team in Sacramento to help them keep tabs on our state’s policy directions, many start-ups are busy building their company and unaware of government activity that could be harmful or helpful to their company. Sharing platforms, autonomous vehicles and alternative energy are few well-known areas where government has engaged aggressively to impact the marketplace.
Focus on the company’s image and the product’s benefit. There are some unfortunate examples of California-based companies and their leaders focusing hard on growth and choosing to ignore how their company is perceived by the public, elected officials, media and influential organizations. That approach can result in a company’s challenges being used to justify overly aggressive intervention by lawmakers, which could have widespread ramifications for an entire industry. Individual companies need to proactively manage their reputation with public audiences including not just their customers, but also local opinion leaders, local elected officials, and state policymakers. Joining a trade group is a positive start, but companies successful in the public affairs arena know that they need to have their own unique strategy to protect and differentiate their company.
Position your business as a thought leader within your industry. That can mean engaging as a media expert, testifying to the Legislature, serving as a background resource for officials and participating visibly and vocally in the public debate on an issue that affects your company. Some companies hope to just fly under the radar, which may work at times. But many companies operate in industries where the California government is highly engaged: energy, water, transportation, new technologies, healthcare. It’s helpful to build your credibility through positive PR activities before you need to make an important ask in the legislative and regulatory process. It’s a worthwhile investment of time and energy that will elevate and provide a more well-rounded image of your company.
Understanding early the threats and opportunities within California’s public policy debates will help your company not just survive, but thrive in the Golden State. Consider taking the precautions discussed here, and you’ll be better positioned to have that coveted seat at the table.
Alison MacLeod is director of public affairs for KP Public Affairs in Sacramento, CA.