They Said What?


It happens every election year, especially in the final weeks of campaigns: politicians try to earn populist support from voters by showing they’re willing to get tough on “Big Business.” So, they send a letter to a prominent company demanding information and answers on some purported infraction or wrongdoing, promote the move through social media and a press release, and then promptly head to the campaign trail to trumpet the action as “proof” of their credentials in fighting and winning for the little guy.

It’s often just posturing to score political points – rhetoric, not reality.

Still, it’s always uncomfortable for companies when politicians publicly call them out, whether that’s a simple campaign trail “name check,” or written letters requesting information, or threats to haul CEOs before congressional committees. All of this could cause concern and unrest among employees, customers, business partners, investors and other stakeholders, particularly if they lack the context behind what is unfolding and why.

Given this, how does a company determine whether it needs to respond? How does it explain what’s going on to employees, customers, business partners, investors and other stakeholders? Does it even need to communicate with certain stakeholders about something like this? The first step toward answering those questions is thinking about the possibility of a political shout-out or letter well before it may occur and planning in advance, creating a roadmap just in case. In general, the decision-making process should look something like this:

  1. Convene a small group of decisionmakers to set context and determine how to proceed, if at all. The C-suite or the board may need to be made aware but, even in those cases, they usually do not need to spend their valuable time managing such issues. These requests for information or threats of congressional hearings are often worth no more than the paper on which they’re written.
  2. Truly understand the politics behind the ask. Don’t jump to conclusions. Don’t take it at face value. Don’t rush to judgment. Seek the counsel of political and legal experts who know the issue and the players, and who can demystify and unpack the request. Then, get educated about this world filled with stakeholders motivated more by power than money.
  3. Evaluate from all sides the risks attached to responding to or ignoring the threat altogether. Explore all potential scenarios for engaging or not engaging. Consider the company’s business priorities as well as its culture and ground any possible response or engagement in both.
  4. Respond or engage, should you decide to do so, in the most benign way possible. Check the box to show that you’re being respectful and polite and responsive. Do nothing to enflame the situation. Be mindful that any action taken, and anything said can – and likely will – be politicized and “make news.” Ensure any response is true to the company’s core values.
  5. Consider which stakeholders need to be informed about the development and how you will inform them. A straightforward, understated tone will be important. Provide necessary context without going beyond what might be told to the politician. Be consistent in what is communicated to every stakeholder group.

Keep in mind that while the midterm elections will be over in November, there’s no reason to think companies will be in the clear until the next campaign gets under way in earnest.

If Republicans win control of the House or Senate in November, they say they will launch full-throated investigations of the Biden administration on everything from its handling of the coronavirus pandemic to border security to the Afghanistan withdrawal. And any such investigation will invariably touch the private sector; anyone doing business with the government will be fair game.

But even then, what is said will often prove to be more rhetoric than reality, designed mostly to curry favor with their respective core supporters, and not to root out wrongdoing. This same approach will still apply, even if the stakes may feel higher.

Contact the authors:

Liz Sidoti, Managing Director
H/Advisors Abernathy (Washington Office)
+1 202 913 0013

Michael C.Hotra, Managing Director
H/Advisors Abernathy (Washington Office)
+1 571 969 0400