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CEO Update LIVE: Data, stories vital for advocacy in hyperpartisan era

Clark, Timmons and Neely share strategies for targeting supporters, leveraging digital tools and when to take a stand on societal issues.

CEO Update Live panelNational Association of Manufacturers CEO Jay Timmons (top right) joined American Council of Life Insurers CEO Susan Neely (bottom left) and U.S. Chamber of Commerce CEO Suzanne Clark (bottom right) to discuss association advocacy in today's politically polarized environment. The panel was moderated by CEO Update Managing Director Mark Graham (top left).

May 26, 2021
By Walt Williams

Intense political polarization isn’t making association advocacy easy, but knowing where to focus your efforts, picking which cultural battles to avoid and having a solid communications strategy can help cut through the partisan clutter, according to the leaders of three of the nation’s largest business groups.

The CEOs of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Manufacturers and American Council of Life Insurers joined CEO Update on May 25 for an online panel discussion on advocacy in the current political environment. The CEOs generally agreed that on broad policy issues like infrastructure there was room to find consensus—at least in theory.

“Therein lies the challenge we all have because it is not fashionable to operate in a bipartisan manner,” ACLI CEO Susan Neely said.

Political gridlock resulting from a lack of bipartisanship is only one challenge facing today’s association advocates. The business community is increasingly speaking out—or being pressured to take a stand on—hot-button cultural issues like voting rights and systemic racism. Then there is the COVID-19 pandemic, which accelerated many business and political trends already underway and helped usher in an age of digital advocacy.

The interplay between state, federal and international policy has intensified as well, Neely said. Chamber CEO Suzanne Clark agreed, adding that as a result, “the breadth of the work has really expanded in quite a remarkable way.” The good news is associations have more data than ever before to work with, and that allows them to “hyperfocus” their efforts.

“This past year we were able to do a lot of targeting around, ‘Where did a pro-business, free-enterprise jobs message really work?’ and, ‘Were there voters that we could really turn on to those messages in a big way?’” Clark said.

Clark pointed to the recent special elections in Georgia. The Chamber reached out to about a million people in Georgia suburbs “that really care about free enterprise and jobs” through phone messages and tele-town halls rather than advertising.  In a crowded media landscape and highly polarized environment, data is your ally.

“I think the opportunities to lean in to use data to find new tools and to really identify the audiences who care most about your message, and will be there for you, are probably higher and more accessible than ever,” she said.

Virtual lobbying

Data can be a two-edged sword. NAM CEO Jay Timmons said the “weaponization” of public discourse and data has been used to turn association allies into adversaries. He believes the best response lies in having a good story to tell about the real-life impacts of policy decisions. He pointed to the tax reforms passed by Congress in 2017 as an example.

“We can use real examples of investment and job creation and wage growth to be able to make our point when we have to be on the field, defensively or offensively,” Timmons said.

The pandemic has helped associations tell those kinds of stories. The panelists noted that the increased use of teleconferencing has made it easier to reach members of Congress and other decision-makers, given it takes less time to hop on Zoom than to meet in-person. Neely said that when ACLI has a “hot-button” issue before lawmakers, it may bring in 10 to 20 CEOs of member companies “on a moment’s notice.”

“They'll jump on their planes and they'll come in and they'll meet, but it was oddly more powerful on Zoom to be really relevant and timely and not juggling lots of different schedules, and to have the senators’ undivided attention,” Neely said. ACLI will likely continue to use Zoom well into the future, although she added some members still prefer in-person visits.

The Chamber used the pandemic to boost its communications efforts, throwing resources into an interview series featuring guests such as Anthony Fauci and Bill Gates. The “Path Forward” series currently has more than 25 million views.

“Those were numbers that were unheard of for us before,” Clark said. “Some of that was because of the pandemic and virtual (engagement), but some of that was creating that actual franchise.”

‘Woke’ advocacy?

Battles over tax policy and regulation are the norm for associations, but increasingly businesses and their advocacy groups are taking stands on cultural issues, sometimes prompting political backlash. The most recent example came when some businesses spoke out against Republican-led voting laws in Georgia and other states that critics labeled race-based voter suppression. As a result, GOP lawmakers threatened to legislatively retaliate against “woke” corporations.

Voting rights is largely an issue business groups have avoided. “The Chamber is not the voting rights expert, and so asking us to go state by state and look at these bills and decide what was good and what was bad ... was the wrong answer,” Clark said.

But the Chamber and other associations have weighed in on other cultural touchpoints, throwing support behind diversity initiatives after last year’s Black Lives Matter protests and condemning the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Sometimes the CEOs themselves have spoken out ahead of the industries they represent. Timmons said he follows the advice of former Vinyl Institute CEO Dick Doyle, who told him, “You should always be one step ahead of your board but not two.”

“You have to understand what their principles and what their values are, but I also think that every single one of us … is blessed to have the platform we have been given,” Timmons said.

“It becomes difficult to try to figure out what you want to speak out on but frankly it's a gut check. It's a gut call,” he added. “It's a good conversation to have with your board chair and with your executive committee. Find out what they want you to stand for, or in some cases stand against, and when your voice will be welcome in the debate.”