The global network is bringing together financial experts and political strategists from both sides of the aisle to help brands nail their messaging on oft-controversial topics.
Stagwell, the agency network started in 2015 by political strategist and former Microsoft executive Mark Penn, is launching a new business arm designed to help brand leaders navigate the nuances of political and social issues. The new branch, dubbed the Risk and Reputation Unit, brings together experts from across the aisle to advise executives and help them form strategic bipartisan communications.
With global tensions rising in light of the conflict in Ukraine, Stagwell felt the timing was right. “One of the things we realized, particularly in the aftermath of some of the very public misses at the start of the Russia-Ukraine war, was that CEOs and CCOs need professional, outside advice on navigating emerging political issues,” Penn tells The Drum. “CEOs have minutes to react once internal stakeholders begin organizing around a problem – and they make decisions based primarily on internal information with little outside perspective. Or, those who do look externally seek political expertise from only one side of the aisle, ensuring that their communications will alienate existing or potential consumers.”
And getting the brand messaging right, he says, is no small matter, as one ill-advised mistake could result in billions of dollars in lost shareholder value and long-term damage to the brand’s reputation. “This isn’t just an issue of outplaying the news cycle.”
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The new practice will see Stagwell’s corporate advisors come together with financial and political strategists from the network’s Democratic communications and consulting firm SKDK (which worked on Biden-Harris 2020 campaign), experts from Stagwell’s Republican digital-focused political comms agency Targeted Victory (which is on track to raise more than $1.5bn for Republican causes and campaigns this election cycle) and financial communications professionals from Sloane & Company. The group includes ex-Ford, IBM and Microsoft execs, as well as campaign strategists who have worked in 12 different US presidential races and 270 Senate and House races.
But Penn stresses that the branch is “not another purpose marketing unit” – it goes far beyond that. “We’ve built the Business Risk and Reputation Unit to provide two critical missing pieces of the consideration puzzle. One is bipartisan political insights, and [the second] is multidisciplinary, multi-sector business leadership and financial comms expertise,” he says. “In conjunction with a leader’s internal insights, it’s the perfect recipe for traversing today’s minefield of policy, political and social issues, while balancing risk.”
Combining a diverse and balanced range of voices, Stagwell hopes, will help brand leaders take stock of the issues that matter most to stakeholders and subsequently develop and deploy both proactive and reactive strategies to manage brand purpose and reputation, while safeguarding their bottom lines. “Our teams are on-hand with always-on global brand intelligence and polling, ready to spring into action at the first sign of an emerging issue,” says Penn.
For brands – which are under increasing pressure to take public stances on hot-button issues – it can feel nearly impossible to toe the line. While data from Kantar indicates that some 68% of consumers believe it’s important for brands to take a position on social and political issues, Stagwell’s own polls, conducted in partnership with Axios, have found that 59% of consumers say there is more risk than reward in speaking out on social issues. And 37% of the public say that chief executives should stay out of social debates.
Even considering the risks, Penn says there are some simple, straightforward tips for getting it right. It’s the same advice he gave to candidates when he worked in politics (Penn co-founded PSB, a major polling firm and consultancy, and served as a chief strategist on Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign). “Study the issues, understand your stakeholders and ensure that when you speak out, it’s consistent with the platform you’ve built around your brand. The closer a policy or social issue is to your company’s core value proposition, the more the topic makes sense.”
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