Political Volatility Delivers Lessons for Brands

John Ullyot High Res

By John Ullyot
senior vice president, global corporate practice, based in New York & Washington, DC

If one were to choose a single word to describe the American political mood as expressed in the last four years of Congressional elections, it would be volatile.

220px-United_States_Capitol_-_west_front In 2006, as public sentiment soured over Iraq and the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina, Democrats gained 34 seats in taking power from Republicans in the House of Representatives for the first time in twelve years.  Two years later, in 2008, Democrats added another 21 seats to their majority, for a total two-year swing of 55 seats, or one-eighth of the chamber’s total of 435.

This year, in the wake of public dissatisfaction with the economy, government bailouts, and rising federal debt, the pendulum swung decisively in the opposite direction.  Republicans gained 63 seats and comfortably regained the Congressional majority in the process.

This year’s election represents only the second time in over a century that control of the House has flipped one way, then back again, in a four-year span.  And the number of seat gains by one party stands as the highest in a single election since 1948, when Democrats wrested back control of the House from Republicans by claiming 75 new seats.

Polling of general public moods, as well, confirms the volatility.  Gallup recently reported that only 21% of Americans are “satisfied with the way things are going” in the country, the lowest-ever number for that metric before a midterm election in the 28-year history of that organization’s comparable polling.

Whatever the cause of each individual shift at the ballot box, the last four years demonstrate clearly that trust and brand loyalty in politicians and political parties can shift rapidly – and permanently – in the present environment.

This is particularly the case in an era of saturation media coverage and rapidly expanding use of social media.  In the present political environment, for better or worse, any public setback, or slip-up or poor choice of words or actions by a politician becomes recorded, emailed, tweeted, You-Tubed, blogged and archived for permanent retrieval by one’s critics.

So what lessons can be drawn for commercial brands and institutions from the present volatility in the political environment? Though not as starkly measureable as in election results, the public’s mercurial political loyalties of late clearly extend to their perceptions of companies, their choices of brands, and their trust in corporate leadership.

Like politicians and parties, companies and brands that have taken decades to establish now can face reputational challenges hard to imagine a decade ago, as consumer perceptions are far easier to change than before. In the present environment, where the river of public trust and brand loyalty is increasingly treacherous, companies should remember three fundamental tenets of crisis communications to navigate the waters safely:

1. Authenticity – Nothing damages company reputation more in a time of volatility than when it is exposed as inauthentic, or attempts to be something it is not. Companies that advertise heavily their concern for the environment, for example, and then experience a major mishap, are clearly worse off than if they kept a low profile originally. Similarly, executives who preach austerity, or especially those who appeal for government assistance, and who are then discovered personally traveling in luxury or spending profligately, face a backlash far worse in these times than in those of relative stability and prosperity. Stick to your core brand strengths and value propositions, and make sure your company’s actions remain consistent with those tenets. Make sure to “walk the walk.”

2. Candor – The first cousin of authenticity. When the public mood is volatile, and brand loyalties are fleeting, companies that level with the public about the bad, and avoid rosy forecasts, gain a new respect from consumers who are used to hearing the opposite, and whose own personal and financial futures face uncertainty. Under-promise and over-deliver: while this is always a good phrase to live by, it becomes essential to brand preservation when skepticism abounds.

3. Preparation – Norman Augustine, the retired chairman and chief executive officer of Lockheed Martin, once said, “When preparing for a crisis, it is instructive to recall that Noah started building the ark before it began to rain.” Rigorous and thorough crisis planning is always smart, but it becomes essential when the public mood is easily shifted. And, although there are many elements to a good crisis communications plan – including message development and testing, executive training and scenario drilling, to name just a few – developing a robust and multi-faceted digital strategy as part of that plan has become indispensable, as many politicians lately have found out the hard way.

No one knows how long the present volatility in the U.S. and world political environment will last: whether it will prove fleeting, or stay with us for a decade or more. One thing we can agree on is that the present, ever-shifting public mood carries with it real and immediate lessons for brands that companies ignore at their peril.

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