Every presidential election cycle, the mainstream media rediscovers what they unvaryingly view as the mysterious power of contemporary political communications.
Every presidential election cycle, the mainstream media rediscovers what they unvaryingly view as the mysterious power of contemporary political communications. In 2008 and 2012, they marveled over Team Obama’s adept use of social media to identify and turnout young voters. When Bill Clinton defeated George H.W. Bush, the James Carville and George Stephanopoulos run “War Room” assumed legendary status. Karl Rove was heralded as the “Boy Genius,” for his ability to micro-target narrow audience segments—single, white moms who own handguns—and, then, aggregate them into a winning coalition.
This season, the Wall Street Journal introduces its readers to the tactics of opposition research, social media metrics, and rapid response operations, as practiced by what the paper describes as a new, for-profit venture of “the unofficial research arm of the Republican party.” The article claims, “American business is borrowing more and more of the bare-knuckle tactics that are a hallmark of American politics.” This is a big statement and the Journal fails to back it up.
Which is probably why reporter Patrick O’Connor quickly back peddles by conceding, “Most public companies don’t have the same appetite for risk or willingness to engage with their critics as a political campaign does.” He adds, correctly, that “some industries face bigger reputational challenges than others,” suggesting that heavily scrutinized companies, such as those from the energy and pharma sectors, are more prone to hardball than, say a major retailer or consumer product maker.
This is all accurate, and it gets to true challenge of applying so-called political hardball tactics to corporate communications or issue advocacy. And it’s not the mechanics of opposition research or “negative messaging”—these tactics have been around for literally centuries. The challenge is having the savvy to understand what is appropriate for each individual client, given their brand, their corporate culture, and their appetite for risk. More often than not, the best strategy consists of having the company take the high road, while recruiting allies that can take the gloves off. Are a few CEOs up for a sustained, bare-knuckled brawl? Sure, a few. But most would prefer to hire mercenaries, so they can focus on the business of running the company. Hardball certainly has its place, but choose wisely—and, first, be prepared to endure the battle ahead.