From soap box to boardroom Article icon

From Political campaign techniques are increasingly being used in the private sector to engage with stakeholders

When Stephen Hester took over as chief executive of the Royal Bank of Scotland in 2008, he must have realised that his attempt to turn around the ailing bank would be the subject of intense media scrutiny. Perhaps he might not have appreciated, however, the extent to which he would personally end up at the centre of a media storm.

When he declined a near £1 million bonus earlier this year, Hester conceded that the cost was not just financial. The episode had such deeply depressing moments that he considered resigning. Hester must have felt like many a politician faced with a political or personal scandal but without the benefit of years of experience working in the harsh world of frontline politics.

But his experience is not unique. In the aftermath of financial crisis, increasing numbers of corporate leaders have found themselves in an unforgiving bright media spotlight. By tapping into the experience of the political world - and particularly its fast-paced communication techniques - some have realised that they may have a far better chance to thrive in what has become a more hostile environment.

Cue political communicator

Gavin Megaw, director at Hanover, held a number of senior media roles in the Conservative party before he entered the private sector. He now uses that experience to help corporates. 'I do a lot of media training with chief executives because they are much more in the limelight today. They are, in effect, celebrities and they have to be able to take to the stage,' he says.

'Having the experience of politics is a great vehicle for going to see chief executives, because they want to learn from the examples (and mistakes) of politicians.'

It is not just about giving individuals the political make-over though. 'The political world is very strong on integrating communications across, for example, poster, print and broadcasting,' says Megaw. 'No stone would be left unturned - weekly grids would ensure discipline in messaging and people would be briefed in advance of one, two or even three news cycles. There's a lot for corporates to learn from that rigorous process.'

Tim Allan, who spent six years working for Tony Blair in opposition and then at 10 Downing Street, is now managing director at Portland. He thinks that political experience can add a further dimension to corporate communications. 'Successful campaigns share core features: research, integration, planning, strategy, message discipline and delivery. But in politics, you learn how crucial it is to talk to people in a way they understand, through the channels they use every day,' he explains.

'There can still be a tendency in business to fall back on the language of producers rather than language of consumers. It doesn't work for the public or for the media.'

Campaigning not media relations

Allan has also noticed an increasing number of clients interested in campaigns rather than just media relations. 'That broader approach can involve all sorts of communications techniques from sophisticated social media strategies to knocking on people's doors and trying to persuade them directly. Some of our work can be very like running a political campaign,' he says.

Malcolm Gooderham, managing director at TLG Communications, also started in political PR, working as press secretary to Conservative MP Michael Portillo. A key lesson he gives to corporates from the world of political communications is the power of repetition.

'Too many corporate communicators feel the need to refresh or worse change their message, therefore almost certainly reducing the impact,' he says.

'While few politicians manage to stay on message those that do can be very successful, such as Blair and Bill Clinton. They had a clear script when running for office and repeated the messages to support it week in, week out. In sharp contrast, too many corporate leaders take pride in never saying the same thing twice.'

Roots in New Labour

Far from a new development, this political to corporate skills exchange has been going on for some time. 'It took hold when people noticed how effective New Labour had been,' says Jon McLeod, chairman, corporate communications and public affairs at Weber Shandwick. 'Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson set the tone, which then saw business ape political communications, for example, with rapid rebuttal where any criticism would be beaten to death with statistics stored on a database. That was the beginning of it.

'Then there was [former director of strategy for David Cameron] Steve Hilton who helped reposition and rebrand the Conservatives, and Obama's election campaign proved the mobilisation powers of the Internet, email and social media. Political parties are coming up with lots of ideas because they are faced with continuous news coverage. It's no surprise that corporates are interested.'

Well established though this communication highway may be, it looks like it might be about to speed up. Spencer Livermore, former director of strategy in 10 Downing Street, recently launched Thirty Six Strategy, a division of Blue Rubicon which is specifically focused on taking the strategies of winning election campaigns into the boardroom. The rationale is that the corporate ground is particularly fertile just now for such political strategies to flourish. 'More and more businesses are having to contend with an exceptional combination of extreme factors that election strategists have had to cope with for years,' says Livermore.

Three deciding factors

He cites three particular factors, which include cynical consumers - who since the financial crisis have become just as sceptical of brands and organisations as they are of politicians; a hostile media - which has become increasingly aggressive as public trust has declined, and which is more likely than ever to put business news on the front page; and, fierce competition - in which challenges to business reputation emerge more quickly and unpredictably than ever, and in which corporate leaders face the same increasing pressure as politicians to take immediate action. 'In this harsh environment, I believe the challenges faced by businesses and politics are now so alike the strategic solutions should be too,' says Livermore. 'Whatever sector they come from, clients invariably come to us with a competitive challenge and the singularly competitive focus of election strategy has helped them find and occupy the territory they need to win.'

The problem with politics

The logic is compelling. But there must surely be a few concerns with this political and corporate overlap. Some might argue that the communications 'spin' of the political world actually increased levels of political distrust among the general public. For example, it may still be some time before people forget the 'dodgy dossier' on Iraq's supposed weapons of mass destruction - which was issued in 2003 by the Labour Government's then director of communications Alistair Campbell.

And as statistics only seem to point to increasing levels of political detachment and scepticism, political communicators have hardly succeeded at improving the situation. Why then would corporates think that political communications techniques would fare any better to improve consumer trust and brand reputation? McLeod agrees that political cynicism is on the rise, while party participation is on the wane. 'There are lots of reasons for that. It's not just communication,' he says. 'For instance, political parties have come closer together - they are all social democratic parties. This raises a real brand challenge.'

McLeod accepts, however, that there is some specific cynicism around the communications messages of politics. 'But you have to accept communications plays a part in politics and corporates will always be interested in the skills formed in the heat of political battle,' he adds.

Livermore thinks the question misses the point: in politics, the job of the election strategist is not to make voters less sceptical but to find the route to winning with a sceptical audience. 'In my view, it's a good thing that consumers are far more questioning, challenging and critical now than ever before,' he says. 'We are in an era of the sceptical consumer, whether that be political consumers or consumers of brands, and that is not going to change.

So the task of strategy is not to change this fact but to cope with it. You have to start from where the audience is, not where you want it to be.'

A reputation risk?

But where the corporate and political worlds share the challenge of a sceptical audience, it does not necessarily mean that they should approach it in the same way. 'A problem with the political approach is that it can be quite short term,' concedes Hanover's Megaw. 'Corporates have to think in the long term - and they have to think not only of the press but of all their stakeholders, including customers, employees and investors.'

He suggests that a good example of politics meeting corporate occurred in 1997 when Lord Browne, then chief executive of British Petroleum, started to reposition the oil company, giving it a new name (BP) and logo in 2001 as part of a shift away from oil - Beyond Petroleum - to becoming a greener, more responsible energy company. 'It was groundbreaking,' says Megaw.

But despite the success of the rebrand, Megaw says that Lord Browne made a serious political mistake: short-termism. 'He failed to fix operational aspects of the business so there was a reputational gap,' he says. From 1999 to 2007 charges of illegal dumping of hazardous waste, major oil leaks in Alaska, and a chemical leak in Texas, were among the factors that meant that by the time of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, the company had, as Megaw puts it, 'no insulation' to act as a buffer.

Political techniques - including short-term thinking - may also have been part of the problem when Facebook got into trouble last year for attempting to anonymously smear Google over its privacy policies. The company had hired two former journalists to pitch negative stories about Google to the media - without revealing their source.

The plan backfired when Facebook was unveiled as the source; the company was duly accused of unethical behaviour and hypocrisy, given rising criticism over its own privacy issues.

Taking the long view

Livermore, however, warns against using such examples to dismiss the many positives of applying political experience to a corporate setting. 'For me, this is the difference between tactics and strategy. [These] examples are tactics that I wouldn't in any way seek to endorse. What I believe is that, by contrast, the strategies underpinning successful election campaigns are extremely applicable to corporates and brands seeking to solve their own strategic questions.'

Such strategies Livermore defines as: constantly targeting the audience needed to win; relentlessly focusing on the competition; identifying the winning territory; and using narrative to drive alignment. 'These are things that successful election campaigns do extremely well, and it is this approach to strategy that I believe we can take from the war room into the boardroom,' he says.

Despite some reservations, there is undoubtedly value for corporates even in the short-term techniques of the political world - as long as they are applied wisely. 'In the past five years there have been situations with listed companies in which they have come under attack from short sellers. Political techniques can be brought in to not only defend but even save the life of a company that finds itself being sold short on the financial markets,' says McLeod.

The real skill of course will be for corporates to determine what political techniques they most need, and when to apply them. It may help that this is not a one-way street: the political world learns as much from the communications strategies of the corporates as the other way around. And with an increasing number of professional communicators who have worked in both the political and corporate spheres, there should be no lack of experience when it comes to exploiting the best ideas from each.

In the long term, the very idea of separate political and corporate communications strategies may not mean much anyway. 'Just as communication is faster than ever, you will see the cross-fertilisation of ideas happening more and more rapidly and any remaining barriers breaking down,' says Portland's Allan.

Those chief executives who have somewhat reluctantly joined the politicians in the harsh glare of the media spotlight may feel that such a day cannot come soon enough.