New Threats From Washington Require A New Corporate Communications Playbook

Washington DC, US Capitol Building

More than any time in American history, Washington wants to control the activity of corporations and hold CEOs’ feet to the fire. While this was traditionally a tactic of Democrats in Congress, Republicans are now joining the fray as conservatives continue to embrace a new brand of populism.

In the past, C-suite executives generally understood what to expect from lawmakers in Washington and left it to government affairs teams to contain issues. That’s no longer the case.

The relationship between CEOs and policymakers is now in uncharted territory. As elected officials rely more heavily on small dollar donations, many members of Congress see more political value in confronting Corporate America than working alongside it.

A new desire from both parties for corporate oversight goes beyond legislation and regulation, extending into consumer choice and brand marketing.

As Washington continues to evolve, corporate communications officers must take a holistic approach to reputation management, considering public affairs within their broader strategic operations. Creating more effective pathways of collaboration between the Public Affairs and Corporate Communications functions increases the likelihood of successful efforts by fostering streamlined messaging and a unified approach to all material issue sets.

So how can corporate communicators more effectively partner with public affairs practitioners to engage in reputation management that mitigates risk?

Reputation and Issue Management

Effective integration allows for better management of the organization’s reputation by anticipating potential issues and addressing them strategically. We recommend an expanded social listening program that incorporates hot button social and policy issue areas such as DEI, labor, human rights and environmental factors so corporate communicators can increase engagement with public affairs teams, developing proactive strategies to anticipate and mitigate reputational risk and apply agile responses to key issues.

Message Development and Delivery

By increasing cross-functional collaboration, corporate communicators can align messaging and jointly develop strategies that address reputational and policy concerns at once. This synergy reduces the risk of contradictory or confusing communications that could undermine credibility.

We recommend an integrated annual communications plan that outlines goals, objectives, and tactics for both corporate communications and public affairs. This plan should incorporate strategies for crisis management, stakeholder engagement, digital presence, regulatory compliance and proactive reputation enhancement.

Stakeholder Engagement

Traditional stakeholders for corporate communicators included internal audiences, consumers and investors, while policymakers and their constituents were the domain of public affairs.

Increasingly blurred lines have created crossover between these two functions, which means shared responsibility for a broader set of audiences. By developing consolidated stakeholder maps, organizations can better prepare and execute an overarching strategy, ensuring cohesion and reducing redundancies along the way.

Team Integration

We additionally recommend joint training sessions focused on building cross-functional understanding between communications and public affairs teams. These sessions should cover crisis communications, media relations, stakeholder engagement, and government relations to ensure a well-rounded skill set within the integrated team.

Aligning internal communication channels to provide real-time updates and insights from both teams should also be a priority. Regular cross-functional meetings to review progress, address challenges, and identify opportunities are advisable.

For external audiences, the integrated team can ensure engagement with government bodies, industry associations, advocacy groups, and the general public are similarly aligned.

Collaboration on thought leadership pieces and public statements that position the organization as a responsible and informed industry leader are specific examples of products we recommend developing jointly.

Executive Positioning

Effective leaders should have a strong communications presence, yet few do: Only 16% of CEOs are on X, formerly known as Twitter, and even fewer leverage trusted platforms such as LinkedIn. By deploying the voice of senior executives to deliver core messages, organizations can build trust, reinforce goals and outpace opponents.

Joint Crisis Simulations 

In addition to regular coordination, conducting joint crisis simulation exercises to test the team’s readiness to manage critical situations are highly useful toward identifying gaps in processes, communication and decision-making, so that the integrated team can refine strategies accordingly. Leading tabletop exercises helps organizations strengthen their existing crisis guidelines, as well as build muscle memory for integrated plan execution.

KPI Tracking

Comprehensive metrics to measure the success of an integrated approach are helpful in assessing effectiveness and identifying areas for growth. It is critical to track key performance indicators such as stakeholder engagement levels, media coverage sentiment, and alignment with corporate values, as well as overall brand reputation.

We recommend regular surveys to understand brand vulnerabilities as we have found that integrating corporate communications into a public affairs strategy alleviates risks by ensuring alignment across all messaging platforms.

Jeff Grappone is an Executive Vice President and Chair of the Public Affairs practice at ROKK Solutions.