The End of Advocacy. Time for Advocacy Groups to go to Defense


Part two in a three-part series focusing on communications challenges for brands, advocacy organizations, and educational institutions during the Trump Administration. 

The only certainty of a Trump Administration is uncertainty. During the Republican primary campaign, one of Donald Trump’s opponents characterized him as the “chaos candidate.” Those who cannot become adept at functioning amidst chaos will be penalized during a Trump Administration.

During the presidential campaign, Donald Trump railed against the establishment and policies he vowed to radically change. Immigration – build a wall. Abortion – punish women. Climate change – a hoax. Affordable Care Act – repeal it. Trade agreements – renegotiate.

Many advocacy organizations rely on federal funding that Trump and the Republican controlled congress can affect. For liberal organizations, such as those, which promote reproductive rights, environmental stewardship, and fair and humane immigration policies, it is critical to be on alert as these are areas about which candidate Trump was very vocal.

Following Trump’s stunning Election Day victory, DC’s advocacy organizations quickly huddled among themselves to figure out what a Trump Administration means to their causes. Many groups are scrambling to understand the new world order. Meanwhile, some leaders emerged with a brave face. Some privately rationalized that it would be “okay” and that Trump would moderate his stances.

Then Trump began announcing his cabinet picks.  One-by-one the news hit harder and harder for defenders of key social issues. Moderation simply is not a word associated with Trump.  His cabinet picks doubled-down on his campaign rhetoric.

Senator Jeff Sessions – Attorney General – is a conservative U.S. Senator from Alabama. Sessions has pledged to overhaul immigration. He was previously denied confirmation for a federal judgeship in 1986 – by a Republican-led Senate – because of racially charged comments he made.

Tom Price – Secretary, Health and Human Services – is a republican member of congress from Georgia and a surgeon who has led opposition to the Affordable Care Act. He wants to repeal the law and replace it with a plan that favors private health insurance companies. He introduced legislation that would deny government funding to health care plans that cover abortion.  He is also in favor of privatizing Medicare.

Betsy DeVos – Secretary, Education – is a billionaire education activist who is a staunch proponent of vouchers under the “school choice” slogan.  The idea diverts tens of millions of federal dollars to private schools.

Scott Pruitt – Administrator, Environmental Protection Agency – Oklahoma’s attorney general and staunch opponent of EPA’s major initiatives such as the Clean Power Plan and the Clean Air Act.  

Organizations are now forced to pivot from “promoting change and moving forward” to a considerably more defensive position of “defending the status quo.” For many advocacy organizations, there is still so much progress to be made but that must now be put on hold.  Success should now be based on not losing ground.

Defending ground is not as appealing as moving forward, but make no mistake, a Trump Administration will usher in sweeping changes. Women could be denied medical procedures like abortion; our working immigrant population could be decimated; public education could be gutted; and, health care could be placed back in the hands of the insurance companies and private markets.

The negative outcomes of these dramatic policy shifts could include: an increase in suicides and imprisonments in the case of abortion rights; a loss of production in valuable sectors such as construction, food production, hospitality, as a result of immigration reform; implosion of the public education system as we know it; and, a return to uncared for patients, unaffordable medical procedures, and soaring costs to individuals if the health care law is repealed.

The “stand-and-fight” positioning is the only logical approach. In light of the prevailing policy headwinds, advocacy leaders must now reconsider plans to advance their agendas. Now is the time to dig in and protect the progress that has been made over recent years.  The goal now must be to defend the land you have.

This shift requires a strategic communications approach that must accomplish three things: first, advocacy groups must remind their members and donor bases of their successes accomplished over time; second, the strategy should outline the realities and possible consequences that are possible as the result of the new administration; and, third, it will be critical to create a specific action plan that can be concisely and compellingly communicated to stakeholders.

It’s a mistake to simply use the Trump threat as a fundraising tool. Organizations should be prepared to empty the “rainy day fund” to get their message out. This includes, for example, a significant bump in online advertising; creation of meaningful events that attract major media coverage; and, elevation of media relations to ensure there exists a nationwide network of spokespeople that can effectively advance the message.

Conservative organizations, too, need to be on alert and proceed with caution as Trump has proven to be unpredictable, at best.  Many of the issues cited above are traditionally associated with progressive groups however, conservative groups can be negatively affected by a rollback of current policies.

These shared interests presents the opportunity for coalitions of “strange bedfellows,” between progressive and conservative groups working together to defend the same ground.  For example, not all business organizations traditionally associated with conservative values are excited about the prospect of a massive drop in the workforce that is likely with the approach to immigration reform that President-elect Trump has espoused.  Similarly, many industries desperately need predictability in public policy. It’s difficult to enter into contracts and agreements that often span decades when you don’t know what the playing field will look like just four or eight years from now. Broad coalitions could be built on immigration, trade, climate change, and other issues that benefit both progressive and conservative organizations.  The most effective coalitions are the ones that represent the broadest number of people.

Donald Trump will be inaugurated as President of the United States on January 20, 2017.  Organizations that take a “wait and see” approach will be making a mistake.  Now is the time to dig-in and take action to defend the progress that has been made.

Part three, will focus on how colleges and universities can managing campus unrest in the Trump world.


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Frank Luntz and the mind of NHL fans

Details of a focus group conducted near Washington,DC by pollster Frank Luntz on behalf of the National Hockey League were recently leaked to the website, Deadspin.  The leak exposed virtually the entire focus group process including arguments in support of the NHL and its embattled commissioner Gary Bettman.  It also exposed arguments against the NHL players union.
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Working together – Lawyers and PR

A quick guide to cooperation between the General Counsel’s Office and the PR Department 

In times of litigation, many lawyers live in fear that the legal strategy will be sunk as a result of something that is said in the media.  This is what often leads to those corporate quotes that read, “we don’t comment on pending litigation.”  This is no better than “no comment” which is like saying “I’m guilty.”  Company lawyers and executives consider the “no comment” option the safe option.  Perhaps, but what message does it send to your company’s key stakeholders?  A company that doesn’t defend itself in the media could quickly lose support of customers, suppliers and partners.  The “no comment” strategy may also be an indication that there is no trust between the General Counsel’s office and the PR department to craft effective messages or strategy.  A smart PR team will build relationships with the GC’s office long before the company is embroiled in major litigation.  Likewise, chief executives should demand that the two departments are working together.  (If the C suite doesn’t trust the PR department then its time to get communications people they trust to work closely with the legal team.)

Use communications to help protect the brand in ugly lawsuits

A company can win big in court but lose big time in the court of public opinion, which ultimately could be as – or more – damaging to the company’s brand as losing in court in the first place. The PR team should work in lock step with the legal team from the beginning of major litigation.  The goal should not necessarily be to publicize the case but to protect the brand in the event the case gets serious media attention or public scrutiny.  The communications strategy should reflect confidence, positive messaging and the ability to rapidly respond to false allegations and media attacks.  To get company officials to understand the potential threat to the brand it is often a good idea to send around a Q&A document exploring the likely and unlikely questions the company could face.  The internal process of achieving agreement on the answers can be excruciating but maybe the most important exercise to get everyone on the same page.  The Q&A process gets executives and lawyers to think through the possible scenarios, in fact, often it’s the first time they even considered such questions (an effective Q&A is no more than 20 question but 10 will usually work fine).  Once a Q&A is agreed upon, core messages and contingency statements can be drafted.

 Read all filings, ask questions, and derive messaging from filings

A good communications director will read all filings to fully understand the twists and turns to the case.  The filings contain the heart of the case and each side’s argument and are fertile ground for messaging and Q&A.  PR pros should be sure to understand what is being said in the documents; if they don’t, then they need to have the lawyers explain it to them.  A seasoned litigation communications pro can actually influence the drafting of filings to maximize the message and media use.  At a minimum, one can help insert strong language making it a bit more media friendly.  It’s also important to remember that media have access to court records through PACER (or the opposition) and often read filings in full.  This underscores the need for the PR team to fully understand the filings as well as the potential to influence the media’s coverage of it.

 Recognize key audiences

It is not unusual for the legal team to have “tunnel vision” when it comes to audiences – understandably, they often only see the judge or jury.  It is the responsibility of the PR team to see the broader picture and how all the audiences are affected and make recommendations accordingly.  If, for example, the company is taking on heavy criticism about its core values or products related to litigation and its only comment is “we don’t comment on pending litigation” someone needs to assess the reaction by customers, partners and other key stakeholders.  A non-response position can erode trust, confidence and raise questions by those key constituencies; meanwhile, an upbeat and positive response can protect the brand without threatening the case.

Control the message as much as possible

Protecting the brand in the midst of litigation is a delicate balance. Message discipline is critical.  If your spokesperson shoots from the hip then keep him or her far away from the media.  In an interview situation, the more control you can gain the better.   Email is the preferred option for responding to media questions. The answers can be precisely crafted, vetted by legal, and presented in writing, which should eliminate the possibility of being mis-quoted.   A social media plan needs to be in place to monitor, assess what is being said and how it affects the company or litigation.   Likewise, an online response plan, approved by legal, should be implemented.  The plan should seek broad, forward-looking responses and avoid “tit for tat” spats.  Another important tool is the use of third party support for the company in the form of op-eds or blogs (which can be repurposed on additional online other platforms).  Op-eds and blogs provide the complete message control while demonstrating “independent” support for the company.

Be prepared to explain – or have counsel explain – legal nuances, precedent, and/or next steps

If “beat” media covers your company then it is likely they are not accustomed to reporting on the legal process.  This can be a threat or an opportunity.  The threat of course is the potential for inaccurate or confounded coverage of the case due to a lack of understanding.  However, media without legal experience are potentially malleable if the case can be explained in plain language.  A well-versed lawyer can be a great asset here explaining the legal nuance, procedure and next steps.  Even better, it doesn’t need to be on the record. Educating a media savvy lawyer as to the terms – and proper use of – “background” “deep background” and “guidance” can go a long way.  It’s also good to foster a relationship between the lawyer and key media as it makes for much better coverage.  However, the smart lawyer will understand the need to keep PR in the middle and direct calls and interview requests through PR for vetting even among known media.


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