You Are Who You Fund: What Todd Akin Teaches Us About Campaign Contributions

When we examine the Todd Akin saga from a crisis communications perspective, the lessons are as obvious as they are numerous. Avoid inflammatory messaging. Do what’s necessary to keep allies by your side. Understand that sacrifice is often necessary if you want to fight another day. And so on.

Todd Akin

As Mr. Akin has seen his party funding run dry and his party brethren run for cover (when they are not turning against him), many have asked about a crisis response. Other than spending what remains in his war chest on ads expressing his remorse, what else can Mr. Akin do? Much as those outside his state may not like it, the congressman is playing it exactly right—staying within Missouri. His opponent, Senator Claire McCaskill, is barely acknowledging the controversy in her campaign because it has barely moved Missouri voters. For whatever else Congressman Akin may not know, he knows that all politics are local.

He also knows that he has long held these views and has been elected to six terms in Congress. Further, it was Missouri Republicans who chose him in the Senate primary—and if he believes they agree with his pro-life stance, even if they are appalled by the way he articulated it, there is every reason to also believe that the grassroots will support him, even if the “grasstops” will not.

At the end of the day, Mr. Akin still thinks he can win. And as such, this is not as much a story about the dos and don’ts of crisis communications as it is about the careful calculations businesses and labor unions must make in the Citizens United era—when contributions are as unlimited as the transparency with which they are made.

Our primary system has devolved into a race to the fringes, resulting in general election candidates whose views are as far from the center as any we’ve seen (Todd Akin is far from the only example, and they exist on both sides of the political spectrum). At the same time, the Citizens United decision has opened the floodgates for big corporations and small businesses to funnel unlimited sums of money to the candidates that will further their policy objectives.

This dichotomy has created a dynamic by which businesses and business leaders don’t have to be as outspoken as Whole Foods CEO John Mackey to arouse the ire of those who might not agree with them. Their dollars speak as loudly as their words—and when the candidates they support espouse increasingly extreme views, they risk alienating at least half of the consumers, investors, and other stakeholders who won’t hesitate to find them guilty by association.

Given that direct donations are a matter of public record, some companies may believe that Political Action Committees may provide some cover. But we’ve already seen examples where that hasn’t been the case. With intensified media and blogger attention to campaign finance issues, the potential exists for any political donation to be subjected to a harsh spotlight.

Citizens United provided business and labor with the right to make unlimited political donations, but with that right comes new levels of responsibility. Gone are the days when political contributions were made in smoke-filled rooms that provided a modicum of anonymity. Today, everything is transparent. That means corporate donors can and will be held accountable for the comments of their candidates.

So what is the business community to do? Companies’ public policy interests demand that they involve themselves in the political process. But in this polarized environment, how can they avoid being wedded to candidates whose views may create embarrassment or worse?

Balance is the key. Most companies used to give to both sides as means of hedging their bets. Today, some companies still do—and while it may seem counterproductive, that strategy is one that can help protect donors from being perceived as wedded to potentially uncomfortable statements or policy positions. By donating horizontally (to both sides) and vertically (to local, state, and federal candidates), companies not only expand their sphere of influence; they prevent any single donation from standing out amongst the pack. At the same time, they provide themselves with more allies to provide cover should one of their donations be criticized.

Questions may arise as to why a business entity is playing both sides of the fence; but if they do, companies can fall back on messages about encouraging lively debate, supporting public officials, ensuring all that all sides are heard, and, most important, ensuring that all sides hear the company as well.

As Target, Amway, and others have learned in the past—and as more are certain to learn in this charged political environment—any political donation has the potential to create unforeseen business problems. But when companies infuse balance into their donation strategies, they help themselves steer clear of the extremism permeating today’s political discourse.

Follow Richard Levick on Twitter and circle him on Google+, where he comments daily on the issues impacting corporate brands.

Richard Levick, Esq., President and CEO of LEVICK, represents countries and companies in the highest-stakes global communications matters — from the Wall Street crisis and the Gulf oil spill to Guantanamo Bay and the Catholic Church. Mr. Levick was honored for the past three years on NACD Directorship’s list of The 100 Most Influential People in the Boardroom, and has been named to multiple professional Halls of Fame for lifetime achievement. He is the co-author of three books, including The Communicators: Leadership in the Age of Crisis, and is a regular commentator on television, in print, and on the most widely read business blogs.

[[i]Image: Flickr user Jason Matthews]

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