More like Ben…

Recently, I re-read 14 Action Inducing Lessons from Benjamin Franklin  written by Thea Easterby and published on Jay White’s blog site, Dumb Little Man. I was struck by Franklin’s knack for boiling complicated issues down to their most salient points. Lessons that can be applied to public affairs as well as our personal lives.

Easterby does a great job summarizing 14 Franklinisms with simple messages – “Less Talk, More Action”, “Be Prepared”, “Don’t Self-Sabotage”, etc. My takeaway from “14 lessons” can be summarized in these five aspirational characteristics:

  • Take a 365° view of your issue: Know your place in time, space, and the debate.
  • Be prepared
  • Act/learn/evolve
  • Be nimble and persistent
  • Repeat…

In public affairs, there’s a temptation to wait for a crisis to act and to spend enormous amounts of precious time during the crisis attempting to perfect the message and plan. Unfortunately, this leads to fire drills in which we have unrealistic expectations, and get suboptimal outcomes. This approach violates each of the characteristics above, yet it is pervasive in the application of public affairs campaigns in many organizational cultures.

If you’re reading this, you likely have your own war stories about these unpleasant experiences. We see them daily in the headlines when a corporation, industry, or interest group receives unwanted media attention or is caught completely off guard by a competitor’s actions. I cringe when I think of what these organizations’ public affairs teams are going through as they try to build the perfect plan and message, secure necessary approvals, and get everyone on message before the next news cycle. This crisis mode execution results in reactive decisions under tremendous time pressures that often result in tunnel vision. Waiting for a crisis doesn’t allow for inclusion, message testing, or the valuable perspective that comes from stepping away from a problem and returning with fresh eyes. These scenarios can be avoided if we are more like Ben.

Acting more like Ben means working with senior executives, product development, marketing, operations, and other business units across your company, industry, or non-profit to understand their strategies for capitalizing on opportunities, concerns, and priorities. Help them see how you can be a resource to help them achieve their business goals.

Give yourself time to ask the tough questions and understand where the play may have public affairs opportunities and vulnerabilities. Prepare your leaders for the realities of public affairs and how your world may enhance or create risks for business objectives. It’s also important to discuss when, where, and how they intend to implement the business plan, not just what they intend to do. Without that discussion, there will be missed opportunities for synergies because the public affairs team wasn’t aware of the details early enough to offer input that could have enhanced the business plan.

Acting more like Ben means finding a way to have these discussions. Learn all you can about the project or business, think creatively, be persistent in your drive to understand, and be at the table when decisions are made. It’s not enough to look outward at what’s going on in Washington or your state capital: it’s equally important to look inside and understand your organization. Help your business leaders understand how public affairs can bring value to their decision-making team.

If we act more like Ben, we will spend time preparing – both our organizational leaders and ourselves.

If we act more like Ben, we will focus on learning and evolving our ideas, our plans, and our understanding of where we are and where our organization is going as well as where all of the other relevant players are and where they are going.

If we act more like Ben, we will act on our goals, seize opportunities, and learn from our failures. The biggest failure of all may be the failure to act: pursuit of perfection results in hesitation – and hesitation allows others to frame the debate.

In 2014 and beyond, let’s act more like Ben!

Remember, for success in public affairs, it is essential to see tomorrow, so you can act today.