PR’s Top Pros Talk… Bipartisan Approach to Public Affairs
Lindsay Singleton, Managing Director & Head of the Social Impact Communications Practice, ROKK Solutions
Can public affairs be approached from a bipartisan perspective? Lindsay Singleton, Managing Director & Head of the Social Impact Practice at ROKK Solutions, shares how to navigate the current political environment as a brand and find common ground. She goes into the company’s research on the bipartisan power of ESG.
Download Across the Aisle: Unlocking the Bipartisan Power of ESG here.
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About the Host:
HOST: DOUG SIMON
GUEST: LINDSAY SINGLETON
DOUG: Lindsay, there’s much dominating talk of how partisan things have gotten, but at ROKK Solutions, you’re actually going against the grain by thinking that there can be a bipartisan approach to public affairs for brands. What’s behind that thinking?
LINDSAY: Well, I think that’s a great question, and yes, it does feel, in daily life, like things are so polarized, but if you really look back, historically, most of the progress that has been made in our country has been done by bipartisan coalitions. So, senators or members of Congress who were reaching across the aisle in order to move forward on an agenda that is for the American people. So, our approach to public affairs really kind of takes that by the handle, and we work towards making those coalitions a reality again through developing messaging that brings people together, whether it’s consumers, whether it’s voters, or whether it’s people, members of Congress and policymakers themselves because at the end of the day, we truly believe that’s how work gets done in this city and in this country.
DOUG: So, I guess right now it’s President Biden and you guys who think we can move forward in a bipartisan way. I can see the logic and appeal of that to brands who are now forced to be out there with what they believe in and what they’re about. A bipartisan message is obviously a stronger and safer place to be, but how are you trying to move that forward for your clients? How do you find the common ground?
LINDSAY: Yes, I would say that it’s President Biden, ROKK Solutions, and then quite actually a few others who still believe in bipartisanship and those are often our audiences, although we try to reach as many individuals on either side of the aisle as we can. And a lot of our expertise is boiled down to crafting highly tailored messages on behalf of brands and organizations that will reach both sides of the aisle and will resonate. And I know we’ll talk a little bit more about this, but we’ve just done some really groundbreaking research that gets into exactly what does resonate and with whom, and that does often form the basis of what we’re doing in order to make sure that we are helping push forward those agendas that stretch across the aisle.
DOUG: Yeah, and I wanted to ask you about that “Across the Aisle” research and you talk about unlocking the bipartisan power of ESG corporate social responsibilities become more important. Can you tell us about that research and some of what you’re finding?
LINDSAY: Yeah, absolutely. So, we launched our social impact practice in the fall of 2020, and it’s been something that we’ve been doing with clients and organizations for quite some time, really connecting those dots between a public policy goal and what a corporation or an organization is doing on the social impact side, because often we saw that there were silos. But the next thing that we noticed as we really got deeper into this work that there seemed to be such a perception that maybe Republicans don’t believe in climate change or only Democrats care about DEI. And to really best understand our audience is we wanted to challenge those assumptions and to really challenge them, though, we needed to understand, okay, what kind of voters care about which issues? How do those issues resonate with voters of different stripes? So, in the summer of this year, we worked with Penn State University’s Smeal College of Business to study over 1,200 registered voters from across the political lines, so ranging from very conservative to very liberal, a range of demographics and geographic locations to test out that theory of okay, are ESG issues truly partisan in nature or is there some overlap with what issues people care about? And the results are pretty astounding. We expected to have maybe a few surprises, but we were very excited to see just how much support there was across the board for issues related to environment, climate, social, and governance.
DOUG: So, what are the implications for that for the policies that you’re advising companies and activities you’re advising them to engage in?
LINDSAY: So, the biggest one that we could decipher from the data was that it’s very possible that politicians and policymakers are underestimating the support from their bases, from certain issues. And some of that does come down to the kind of language that we use about these issues. So, for example, one of the things that we looked at was the difference in kinds of messaging and language around climate change and environment. And whereas Democrats really seem to respond more favorably to language that was highly emotional, Republicans responded more favorably to language that was more concrete and based in fact and data points and numbers. So, from that, there was also this idea that we are highly recommending to our clients and utilizing on a daily basis as we develop messages that, to really gain traction with voters and consumers of all political stripes, you have to find a happy medium and combine that compelling storytelling with the data that helps to prove and showcase exactly what you’re talking about. And there are many examples of where we’re doing this, but we can see on a regular basis now that those kinds of messages where you marry those approaches are much more powerful and it gains traction and resonates with a much broader swath of Americans.
DOUG: That’s really interesting and as an agency, this “Across the Aisle” research isn’t the first time you’re leveraging research sort of to position your agency and create solutions for clients, started very early on in the pandemic. Can you maybe share a little bit about your “Back to Normal Barometer” that you’ve put together and how that took off?
LINDSAY: Sure, I’d be happy to. So, right at the very beginning of the pandemic, maybe within two weeks, we suspected that the pandemic would be around for quite a while, maybe not quite this long, but for a while. And so, we immediately started engaging in research to get a sense of okay, across these broad industries – entertainment, restaurants, hospitality, travel, what would it take to get people back in those doors and spending money again with some of these very mainstream industries that we all know and love? And we were able to start seeing the kinds of policies that would resonate with that consumer. So, what kind of masking policies, where we needed to be with vaccination rates, what kind of policies that industries would need to take on themselves in order to attract back their customers? And what started out as a pretty broad swath of research became so popular that a number of trade associations and individual companies were coming to us, asking for more tailored results. So, throughout the pandemic and this research actually still continues to this day, we’ve been able to highlight a number of very applicable findings for our clients so that they can start to bring people back and make sure that their messaging is on-point, but also just their public policies and in terms of what they’re requiring for consumers and their employees. And it’s been really been a great journey and we’ve seen a lot of interesting pick-up from this research as well. CNN, Washington Post, Times and many, many others. And we were the first in this field of research, and it’s been a great journey. And yes, to your point, this was sort of a launching point for ROKK to become more involved in the research space, and I suspect we’ll probably be doing much more of it in the future.
DOUG: Yeah, and Lindsay, you’re painting a very hopeful picture of the future, which is wonderful. But, one of the challenges to that might be just how the media itself seems motivated to cover things differently, it seems, they make money by increasing the intensity of the divide. And that’s not just the cable news shows, it’s talk radio, it’s online, etc. So how, when you’re supporting a brand with this bipartisan approach based on data of what the majority of people would logically want, how do you manage that because you’re still in this sort of media mill where you don’t want, as a client, to be chewed up by a group that doesn’t believe what you’re saying and has a powerful megaphone?
LINDSAY: It can be difficult to navigate. But one of the things that we were able to uncover in our research are the specific issues, and again, going back to some of the language around those issues, of what resonates with whom. And for an agency to be successful, media relations is the bread and butter of what we, and just about every other agency out there, does. And a successful pitch is going to be a highly tailored pitch. When we’re working with the brand, we are developing a set of messaging and topic areas to proactively pitch around, but we have to know exactly who is pitching to and why, and we have to be thinking ahead of that pitch, “Okay, what is the story that we want to see and how do we turn that idea into a reality?” And a lot of that has to do with going back to research. And maybe not, you know, focus groups and dial testing, but knowing exactly who your audience is. So, let’s say we’re targeting a CNN or a FOX, well, now we know who their audience members are, who they and what they care about. So we want to talk about a company’s approach to the environment. If we’re pitching it to FOX, we might frame it slightly differently, in terms of the kind of activities and how we’re talking about them. We might not call it “climate change”, we might call it “energy waste and water management”, which, from our research, we found truly resonates with people on the right. However, I’ll say it again, we found a tremendous amount of bipartisan support for climate on both sides of the aisle, and Republicans and Democrats alike both overwhelmingly put climate change as one of their top 5 issues. So, we know that they care, but it is about tailoring those messages and those pitches to who your audience is, and sometimes, that audience is the media themselves.
DOUG: Awesome, and Lindsey, I’m really confident that we put this segment through dial testing, you’re going to come out with really positive scores. Thanks so much for being with us.
LINDSAY: Thank you so much for having me.