The following is an opinion piece by Noah Rouen, President of The Rouen Group. Pollen aims to promote open discussion among our members as a platform where all perspectives are welcome.
“Corporations are people, my friend.” –Mitt Romney
It was the quote heard round the world—or at least on every cable news and talk radio program for a 24-hour news cycle. The words had barely left Romney’s lips and immediately there was a firestorm of controversy and conversation about the role of corporations in political campaigns.
While the debate rages on, the fact is corporations and their employees are playing an increasing role in politics and policy.
With the landmark 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision, which said it was unconstitutional to ban corporations’ independent political speech, the role of corporations in politics has only increased. In Minnesota this has become especially true as both major parties struggle with debt and redefined roles in the electoral process as a result of more corporate funding for direct advocacy.
As the role of corporations in politics continues to evolve, the one area going very well for many organizations is employee civic engagement. According to a recent study by BiPAC not only do employees want their companies to be involved and engaged in the political process, they are ready for an increased level of involvement. The 2012 survey of employees across various industries found that only national news outlets and local newspapers ranked higher than employers’ websites as the places people turned for political information. This means that employer-provided information is ahead of candidates, political parties and even social media when it comes to providing information about politics. The study also found employer information to be the most trusted source of information—ahead of newspapers and media outlets.
What this suggests is that the employer community has a great opportunity and in some cases an obligation to talk to employees about the impacts of policy and politics. In fact, over 94% of employees say they would like the same or more information from their employers than they are receiving right now. All of this information has an impact. Over 50% of people surveyed said employer information impacts how they will vote and nearly 30% said it makes them more likely to vote.
Thankfully for us in Minnesota, many local companies, large and small, are leaders in the field of corporate civic engagement.
Their leadership is not only due to the fact that these organizations are civically minded, but also due to the fact that their employees are engaged. Numerous companies throughout Minnesota have invested a lot of time and resources into civic engagement programs because they know the importance of these programs, not just to their workforce, but also, in many cases, to the company’s bottom line.
While there are countless examples both locally and nationally of how the investment in civic engagement has paid off, one of the most documented is the example of The Geek Squad in Maryland. Like many states across the country, Maryland faced a significant budget deficit, and like other states they were looking for new sources of revenue. The one the state of Maryland chose was a tax on computer repair services. Not a broad sweeping tax on professional services that has been discussed in Minnesota, but a tax that singled out computer repair services like The Geek Squad. What happened next? Best Buy and The Geek Squad employees took action and built one of the more successful employee grassroots campaigns in recent memory. They were able to repeal the tax and keep their services competitive with neighboring states.
Here is a link to a great video documentary of the issue.
Despite many success stories, employers are still reluctant to start civic engagement programs. They cite budget concerns, time constraints or fear of backlash from employees and customers.
While all of these issues may be legitimate, none of them should preclude businesses from talking to their employees. If you are like many employers who wish you had done more to educate, engage and activate your employees this election season, you are not alone. With just a few days left before an election that could be decided by a razor thin margin, let this be a wake up call. Our state and our country face significant policy issues that will no doubt affect your business, your community, your employees and the future direction of our economy. You can use the election results as a reason to kick-start your program.
So how do companies get started?
When I work with clients on building their program, the hardest step is always the first. Once you start, research indicates that programs grow just through employee demand and participation.
In preparation for this article, I recently sat down with Best Buy’s Laura Bishop to discuss their award winning civic engagement program. She outlined the history of their program and how the Blue Grassroots Network has become a model of employee engagement. Below is an outline of our conversation about how to build a successful program.
1. Start Small
Laura shared with me that for a long time at Best Buy, she was a department of one person. Even as Best Buy had stores in every state and growing international presence, they started with just one person using basic steps. Best Buy currently has stores in every congressional district and they make sure the members of Congress know that. Best Buy employees have written over 17,000 advocacy letters since the program began in 2010 and that number continues to grow.
2. Have the Right Tools
The right tools are important for the education and engagement of employees. At Best Buy they take advantage of a very strong internal communication network to help promote activities and involvement. They also have a separate website for their “Blue Grassroots Network” where employees can get more information about policy initiatives and civic engagement opportunities. While Best Buy has the resources to custom build a website, there are certainly inexpensive tools for companies with less resources, including those available through trade organizations or third party vendors. And the right tools are not just online. Best Buy and others give employees opportunities for direct interaction with politicians and policy makers through site visits, speaking opportunities or a “day at the capitol.” The right tools are those your employees want and will use.
3. Be Transparent
Bishop says part of Best Buy’s success of engaging employees comes from the company’s transparency. It is very easy for Best Buy employees to track endorsements and expenditures for the Best Buy Employee Political Action Committee (comprised of participating employees’ personal contributions), as well as direct corporate spending on advocacy projects. The executive team is open about the company’s involvement in trade and political organizations. They publish a “Political Activity Report” on their website so anyone can track the activity. This has helped Best Buy remain active and engaged in an open and transparent way with employees and other stakeholders.
What Best Buy and others are demonstrating is that corporations have an important role to play in our democracy. Corporations may not be “people,” but like it or not, they have become a trusted source of information employees are craving. It is the responsibility of corporate leaders to retain that trust through continued credible communications. It is the employees’ responsibility to take advantage of the opportunities corporations are giving them to become active participants in our democracy. If both sides hold up their end of this arrangement, we are all better for it.
Romney or Obama? In the end maybe corporations and their employees will decide and that is ok.
Noah Rouen is President of The Rouen Group, a public affairs and communication strategy firm based in Minneapolis, MN.
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