Populist Surge

The wave of populism that crashed on our shore in 2016 had its start years ago.  In 1996, we did a study called “The Elephant Looks in the Mirror” and found that the largest segment of Republicans were driven by populist issues from immigration, affirmative action and trade.  We called them “Cultural Populists.”  They were foreshadowed by likes of Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot in the early 1990s, and were followed by the Minutemen and the Tea Party movements in the last decade.

Fast forward 20 years later and the populist wave has toppled the political establishment, and we will be feeling its impact for some time.  Both on the left and the right, 2016 sowed the seeds to grow a crop of populist candidates emulating Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

What we have learned is that populism cuts through both parties.  Trump’s outreach to labor unions will be met with a stronger labor voice within the Democratic party.  His trade policies will find reluctant converts within the GOP, whose voters scream for fairness as loudly as their labor union brethren, long term consequences be damned.

What does this mean for companies doing business in the U.S.?  We have already seen the “naming and shaming” approach that Trump has used over the campaign and now into his early presidency.  We believe this will escalate with the following manifestations:

  • Attacks on legitimate business interests will be on the rise – not just from activists, but from elected officials at all levels of government.
  • Politicians will learn the lesson that there is political gold in harnessing public anger and providing the easiest available “corporate fat cat” target.
  • Any business has the potential to become a target, but the most obvious will be multi-national firms, importers, job exporters and companies receiving targeted tax incentives (corporate welfare).


Be Prepared

There are several things an organization can do to get ahead of the populist curve.  First, conduct an issues audit, and be creative:  “Red Team” how your organization/industry is vulnerable to attack and exploitation

Undergo a reputation check-up:

  • How well are you perceived by your key stakeholders and within the policy making community in Washington?  Have you built goodwill? Are they going to give you the benefit of the doubt?
  • Identify the faces/players within who will add credibility/sympathy as the face of your side. Similarly keep the “millstones” out of the spotlight.
  • DC Opinion Leader focus groups and surveys can help.

Conduct research now – don’t wait for a crisis:

  • Step outside your internal echo chamber and listen to what others objectively say about you
  • Let research help you prioritize your messages and proof points
  • Test “real life” scenarios of being proactive in anticipation of criticism or keeping the powder dry and being reactive
  • Let research help guide not only what you say but your strategic approach

Proactively strengthen your reputation:

  • Don’t wait until it is too late. In any crisis or campaign, time is the rarest of commodities.
  • Set measureable goals to drive awareness of the research-tested messages you know will build a positive halo around your reputation.
  • Execute your communication plan, which drives a consistent focused message across all communications channels.

Get ready to respond and pre-recruit your allies:

  • Populism has not been a real threat in modern U.S. history because it typically has horrible outcomes.
  • Be prepared to push back and be specific how policies aimed at “satisfying the mob” will actually hurt consumers through higher prices, less innovation, a rollback of freedom, etc.
  • Know your enemy and discredit and expose them. Not every populist is a celebrity billionaire. Do your homework and unmask the hypocrisy that is likely hiding underneath.
  • Foster interest group alliances to help deliver the negative messages, and groups with credibility among the populist electorate.

We would be happy to sit down and discuss your situation.  Contact us!

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