Public policy issues: There is always another option

Public policy issues have been a hot topic lately at The Whittington Group.  Whether on the statewide  or local level, clients focused on building their brand’s reputation are also finding themselves caught in the crossfire of hotly debated legal, legislative and public financing issues.

Our guidance continues to be the same.  Be persistent, be consistent and work to elevate the brand above the street fight-like tone of the day-to-day arguments over specific issues.  A long-haul view is essential. 

One example: Political heavyweights are pressuring a local non-profit organization to publicly and emphatically support a costly public infrastructure project. The project is highly controversial, gets daily news and opinion coverage in the local media and is a political lightning rod in upcoming elections.  The non-profit is left with two options, neither of them good: 

1) Go ahead and join the pro-project forces and gain their favor even though the non-profit believes in the project broadly but thinks the details are way off the mark, or

2)  Stay on the sidelines, allow the public debate to run its course and suffer a potentially severe loss of political support among the project’s biggest cheerleaders. 

At the same time, our friends at the non-profit group have a much bigger long-term agenda and mission that will go on regardless of the outcome of the public policy debate du jour.  Yes, the infrastructure project certainly is relevant to them, and approval or rejection of the project will have an impact on the big picture mission of the non-profit. 

But – and this is the most crucial point – that big picture mission to build a brand must supersede today’s caustic debate.  Taking the proverbial “high road” is essential and will keep the brand from sinking up to its axles in the “low road” quicksand of a nasty public argument that will ultimately damage both the winners and the losers.  

The high road does require action.  Remaining stalled on the shoulder is a cop out, not a leadership position.  Which brings us to suggest a third option to the non-profit:  Convince the two camps on either side of the public debate to take a big step back, and propose to them a new solution designed to both solve a legitimate infrastructure problem and address the concerns of the project’s opponents. 

No question, that third option will be extremely difficult.  But being a leader often requires creativity and courage.  At first, it’s likely that the current “for” and “against” armies will simultaneously turn their guns on the lone voice of reason who is crazy enough to think a solution exists that can bring them together.  Winning them over is no small order. Their opinions are seemingly encased in ten cubic feet of concrete. 

But offering the third option and leading the community to support it will serve the longer term mission of building the non-profit group’s brand.  Success would mean nothing short of christening the organization as a new, powerful and unifying force for the city as a whole.  The high road is always the best route.