Oestreicher
Paul Oestreicher

It’s almost impossible to escape politics these days. And by politics, I mean the kind that’s become less civil and more polarizing. It surrounds us through 24/7 news coverage, social media channels, and… our co-workers.

A New York Times article, “Edelman, Public Relations Giant, Drops Client Over Border Detention Centers,” is another reminder of the growing advocacy of a long list of stakeholders—including employees, clients, investors, and donors—and the expectation that sides or positions are taken on issues. When entering this realm, organizations must make calculations on whether or not an issue really matters to them, and the value of taking a side or not. Discussion points include who they might offend or flatter, what business could be driven away or won, which employees they might alienate or attract, and how it might be communicated. There are hard choices to be made.

So, as people find their voices (or blindly follow the herd) and leverage the tools of the digital world to amplify their message, organizations need to be prepared. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a business, university, charity, or political group. You may choose to proclaim neutrality but that, too, is often treated as just another position like right or left, for or against. It could even be seen as a weakness—the lack of will to take a stand and express the character of the organization. Expect to be challenged, no matter what.

The NYT piece—and what employees are telling us—underscores a few key points organizations must consider in an increasingly demanding environment:

  1. Define your purpose and gain alignment. Organizations must ensure their stakeholders know the purpose, the mission, of the institution. People need context and a clear understanding of where the organization fits within its competitive set and where the employee fits within the organization. 
  2. Understand there are precious few secrets. Our inability to contain information was already past the point of no return when I wrote “The Secrecy Bucket Is Full of Holes” 10 years ago. We are being recorded and tracked. There are hackers and leakers. Of all my experiences in this arena, I’ll never forget being asked to comment on confidential information my firm sent to a government agency only hours earlier.
  3. Declare your values and limits. The article begs the age-old question: Are there people or organizations that do not deserve representation? In a legal situation, the answer is clear, but in other sectors of business and society, there are choices to be made. Organizations should declare their values, their operating principles, and enforce ethical standards. It’s not feasible to name every person, company, or institution that might be off-limits, but you can define your beliefs and set up a structure to review and discuss critical decisions.

No one needs to tell you that we’re operating in a hot mess of division and high expectation. We need to be thinking and planning… all the time. Paraphrasing management guru Peter Drucker: If we’re not changing and innovating, we’re dying. And, while we can’t prepare for every scenario, we can take some basic steps to better listen, evaluate, and communicate.

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Paul Oestreicher is an expert in strategic communications, marketing, public affairs, crisis, change and reputation management. He is the author of Camelot, Inc.: Leadership and Management Insights from King Arthur and the Round Table and the blog C-O-I-N-S: Communication Opinions, Insights and New Strategies. Follow him @pauloestreicher.