Originally published in the April 2012 issue of PRWeek.
We heard a lot about the historical significance of the 2008 presidential election, but this year’s campaign is equally so.
For the first time in more than a century, corporations and unions are able to donate as much money as they like to help a candidate win the nation’s highest elected office. Not everyone is pleased by this, particularly the growing ranks of citizens who hold a skeptical view of corporate influence in the public arena.
The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision held that the First Amendment prohibits government from placing limits on independent spending for political purposes by corporations and unions. While this galvanized public opinion about corporate and union spending, it also opened a new realm of significant PR challenges for those making such contributions. In 2010, Target saw these risks firsthand when it faced boycotts for giving $150,000 to a business group that supported a Minnesota gubernatorial candidate.
Target justified its donation by saying it agreed with the candidate’s economic policies. Unbeknownst to it at the time, the politician also opposed gay marriage, a view in conflict with Target’s record on LGBT issues and antithetical to the interests of some customers.
Target’s support of a controversial social position was inadvertent, so it was fairly easy to recover. It apologized, explained that the appearance of support for the candidate’s position on gay marriage was unintentional, and promised to vet contributions more carefully.
The challenge for companies now will be to explain their intentional support of economic policies that might be perceived as being at odds with the interests of vocal segments of their customer base. It’s a dangerous mix – this combination of greater corporate participation at a time when the Occupy Wall Street message of inequality and corporate overreach remains fresh in the collective consciousness.
Many large companies have published policies guiding their political contributions. But, too often, the legalese does little to ease public concern. Companies must say more about how their political contributions help Main Street. Making a case for supporting policies that lead to greater job creation is a good start. Getting the policy right and then communicating thoughtfully about it not only displays a sensitivity to the varied interests at play, but reduces the risk of a backlash that could negate any benefits of a political win.
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