It is the beginning of a new year, which means that it is time for the annual slew of “trend” pieces (a trend in and of itself) about what is ahead for strategic communications campaigns in the next twelve months. But this year feels a little different, no? It is not just the beginning of a new year, but the dawn of a new era and the closing of another one. While epochs in the communications field traditionally have not aligned with changing administrations, the end of the Obama presidency and the beginning of the Trump administration seems set up to be the start of an entirely new era of communications campaigns.
In a time when corporations and their leaders are becoming public targets largely for policy or social disagreements, we predict a true paradigm shift (a term I did not fully comprehend until the morning of November 9, 2016) in 2017 in strategic communications campaigns. Here are three trends we foresee for 2017:
- The Rise of the Uber-Specific, Single-Issue Coalition:
President-elect Trump enters office with less of a relationship with major trade associations and political affinity groups simply because he didn’t have much opportunity or reason to work with them before. He’s not had much opportunity to interact with the American Medical Association or the Motion Picture Association of American on policy issues. And so he’s most likely not awed by their history or influence.
Historically, these types of groups have been leveraged to implement a range of campaigns, but much of it is still relationship-based, and these are relationships the new Administration does not have, nor do they seem to want. This creates an opening for smaller, very issue-specific groups to finally leverage some policy initiatives, but only if they can figure out which channels are most effective for disseminating a message. In 2017, “Americans for Better Energy Policy” could take a backseat to the nimbleness of “Cape May County Republicans for an Underground Power Grid.” Ten years ago, the ability for the latter to compete side by side was unthinkable. But now, many reports on Trump’s decision-making have stated that he tends to go with the last, or most repeated, piece of advice he heard before making a decision. So for the single-issue advocacy group, the lack of funding or personal relationships could be less of a hardship in 2017. They just need to pick one message that appeals to a Trump advisor, find ways to make sure it’s memorable and repetitive across different channels, and when possible, delivered after the big associations have their say. In 2017, being last could mean coming in first.
- The Administration vs. “Big Defense”
The Joint Strike Fighter has been in development for more than a decade and every day it gets more behind schedule and more over budget. A few members of Congress have questioned the program, but no one has done anything to change its trajectory, nor has any previous Administration taken a good, hard look at making changes to tamper down cost and time overruns. Donald Trump sent one snarky tweet and one of the largest corporations in the world was forced to respond and defend itself immediately for the good of their investors. The major defense contractors need to prepare themselves to have every major weapons program undergo a very uncomfortable physical this year, and to prepare themselves to launch a campaign to counteract when it’s their turn to get burned by 140 characters in the dead of night. This means that the largest contractors, who have been slower than other billion-dollar industries to embrace public-facing digital messaging communications, need to have plans built and ready to be deployed at a moment’s notice if they come under attack from itchy Twitter fingers. Slow-decision making and message deployment in the face of presidential criticism could cost some defense contractors enormous contracts.
- Personal Brands Become Corporate Brands
President-Elect Trump has had a brand long before he had a thought of becoming President—and got elected on the power of that brand. Ninety-five percent of Americans did not know who Rex Tillerson was a month ago—and now the office of the Secretary of State has to worry about the reputation of the office of the CEO of Exxon, because it is now inextricably linked to America’s foreign policy. Corporations used to worry about what people thought of the organization as a whole, and not many worried about what people thought of the executives— if anyone knew who they were. The personal brand is now synonymous with the corporate brand—think Jobs and Apple or Zuckerberg and Facebook. Now “who” runs the US Chamber of Commerce might be just as important as what the Chamber is actually trying to accomplish.
In 2017, companies need to consider the personalities and track records of their most senior executives more than ever—it’s just not feasible to ignore character flaws or poor management records anymore. They will inevitably surface in the public eye and become intertwined with the organization’s brand and in this new paradigm, flawed companies get called out publicly, by the President himself. Organizations need to devote staff and resources to proactively manage executive social media, public appearances, and perform more due diligence before making hires so they are not put in the position of defending their organization’s integrity when it is already too late.