How Companies Can Play in This Year’s Election

How Companies Can Play In This Year's Election

Thousands of nonprofits and trade associations will be active in this year’s election, speaking out on issues that are important to their members and supporting or opposing candidates. But what about companies?

Traditionally, many companies shy away from election-year activity for fear of being drawn into controversy or alienating customers, employees, investors and others who are important to their business. But that is changing—and for good reason.  

A growing body of research shows that both consumers and employees want to hear from companies they trust on election-related issues, so much so that some experts say it is fast becoming a market expectation. 

“Companies have a major role to play,” said Jeb Ory, CEO of Phone2Action. “They can help employees, customers and other audiences get educated and involved in the process. This is not about partisan advocacy. This is about growing relationships with people who matter to your company.” 

To Learn More, download our guide: Boosting Civic Engagement in an Election Year

The Case For Involvement

Studies show that this year’s election, which will determine control of the White House, Congress and many state offices, represents an opportunity for private-sector firms to step into a role as a trusted source of information. For example: 

  • At a time when trust in government, media and other institutions was falling, trust in employers increased, according to the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer, which has studied levels of trust worldwide for 18 years. Roughly 79 percent of Americans said they trusted their employer, according to the survey conducted in 2017, up 15 percentage points from the year prior.
  • Seventy-nine percent of consumers expect companies to engage on political and social issues and 87 percent say they can make a difference when they do, according to a 2019 report by Global Strategy Group. “Today’s consumers not only believe strongly that companies should take positions on social and political issues, but they are actively seeking out information on where companies stand,” Julie Hootkin, a partner at the firm, said in a statement. “As a result, those companies that choose to step out on issues stand to be rewarded, while those that choose to sit on the sidelines may have a price to pay.”
  • A case study by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation found that companies involved in civic engagement increased voter turnout and created value for their business. “‘Get out the vote’ programs not only helped get more voters to the polls but also helped to raise brand awareness, strengthen relationships between employees and shareholders, and even open dialogue with elected officials,” the study’s authors, Ashley Spillane and Sofia Gross, wrote in Harvard Business Review. 

“Understanding this dynamic is increasingly important; we know politics at work can be tricky, but there’s evidence that corporate political engagement is beneficial to businesses,” they wrote.

The trend is clear: companies not only can communicate around elections, but may increasingly be expected to do so. 

Why Civic Engagement is the Answer

Of course, that communication must be done correctly. Few companies have the stomach for supporting or opposing specific candidates or pressing hard positions on issues. While some firms have built that kind of activism into their business model, many more have not. 

Yet there is a way to play a role without partisan activity. As Spillane and Gross wrote, “Our study finds a sweet spot for firms: being pro-democracy and pro-voter, without being partisan.” In short, companies can support civic participation.

Companies can encourage people to get involved in the election—supporting registration, education and voting—without wading into controversy. What form that takes varies by organization. Some create websites that make voter registration easy. Others invite candidates from both parties to speak at their facilities. Many companies also allow employees time to get to the polls, or even provide a day off on Election Day.

Initiatives like this allow for a steady stream of nonpartisan communication around the election in which companies help their audience navigate. When solid information comes from a trusted source, it enhances the relationship between company and audience, whether that is employees, customers or others.  

“While people have lost trust in the media and elected officials, studies show that they continue to trust their employer,” Ory said. “Companies have an opportunity to create relationships that will endure far beyond the election season.”

To Learn More, download our guide: Boosting Civic Engagement in an Election Year

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