211: Preparing CEOs for political engagement
Too often CEOs will talk a tough game but put them in front of politicians and they fail to deliver. In an era of Brexit, Trump and tariffs this needs to stop and public affairs can help.
Speaking on the Today programme about the warning Airbus has issued about leaving the UK in the event of a bad Brexit deal and short transition period, Simon Jack, the Business Editor, gave an anecdote about Rt Hon Greg Clark MP, Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.
According to Jack, Clark complained that big companies would come to him and ‘scream blue murder’ about what the Government is doing on Brexit only to then go in front of the Prime Minister and ‘wimp out a bit’ and say ‘I am sure we will find a way Prime Minister.’
This helps to illustrate the nature of the problem for many organisations. Even when the connections with Government are good, that does not turn into useful results. Instead, it just means a higher standard of reception attended with nicer wine and canapés on offer.
The new realities of the policy challenges that CEOs will face – post-Brexit trade deals, tariffs, immigration targets / quotas – are ones that they are going to have to get used to. They will also largely be decided at a senior political level. Given how politicians at that level operate, they will expect to have engagement with senior management. That will mean require more time and effort.
Some will doubtless be reticent to take such an active engagement role. They will continue to be worried about the possible implications of criticising government, about potential for retaliation in a policy / regulatory way or simply through statement made to damage a reputation. That is part of what makes the Airbus statement on Brexit so important. Once one leader or organisation starts to feel confident in speaking out then others are more likely to follow. There will be a move away from group speak and a collective reluctance to challenge.
So many of the challenges that are coming businesses way are difficult and, above all else, political. That changes the nature of the engagement and public affairs teams need to have some plans in place.
- Do media training, do political training – there is no particular reason why CEOs and others should be good at political engagement. There are listening skills involved, the ability to ask the right sort of questions and it is also about knowing when to get your request for action in. You also need to ensure that they don’t freeze when they meet the most important people.
- Tell them what you want them to do – senior teams need to be equipped with the ‘asks’. It is quite possible that in Jack’s example above, that the big companies didn’t really know what to say so fell back on platitudes. It might not be their fault.
- Do some follow-up – once the ‘ask’ has been delivered then it is up to the public affairs team to do the follow-up and chasing. The engagement is only stage one of the programme. The most important work is done in chasing the opportunity and then making every effort to turn it into a reality. That will doubtless mean working with officials but will require effort possibly over an extended period of time.
- Find the platforms – political engagement is one thing but the messages will need to be delivered through a variety of channels. That could mean a higher media profile alongside joint platforms, speaking engagements and other ways to apply the pressure.
There are also studies that suggest that many consumers, especially younger ones, want active CEOs. They will buy from them and they want to work for them. So there are real drivers towards more active and engaged CEOs.
CEOs need to prepare for political engagement and it is our job to help them.