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Conference exclusive: Lessons from Obama

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The opening dinner of the International Corporate Citizenship Conference offered a spectacularly clear view of San Francisco from the Crown Room atop the Fairmont Hotel. And speaker David Wilhelm offered his own panoramic view of how to approach corporate citizenship from the perspective of a political campaign.

Wilhelm, who managed Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign and was the youngest chair ever of a political party when chosen to head the Democratic National Committee, most recently served as an informal adviser to the innovative campaign of President Barack Obama. At a time when corporate citizenship practitioners may feel they need to approach their work with the same urgency of a political campaign, Wilhelm offered 10 applicable lessons from the campaign trail.

1. Always be the aggressor
On a campaign every day comes down to who is going to talk about what. “If you are backpedaling, explaining or defending or explaining,” he said. “You are losing.” In terms of CSR, he explained, if you are doing it from a position of defensiveness, you are in trouble.

2. Figure out your competitive advantage then drive it, drive it, drive it.
For the Clinton campaign in 1992 it came down to “It’s the economy stupid.” And people still remember it. It was a message that allowed Clinton to be the aggressor. For CSR professionals it means not hesitating to embrace the connection to profit, Wilhelm stressed. “The public value should drive shareholder value,” he said. “Define your mission with absolute clarity.”

3. The Karl Rove Corollary
As in politics, in business the competition will try to take away any competitive advantage. For John Kerry this meant getting “swiftboated.” Wilhelm urged corporate citizenship executives to “defend the idea of social value you are creating with everything you’ve got.”

4. Mitigate your competitive disadvantage
Don’t let CSR be about being defensive. Play to your strength. And when the negative comes, Wilhelm emphasized, “respond in a hurry” when the attack goes to the core of your argument. “The strategic imperative is enormous.”

5. Know your target
Democrats don’t campaign in Utah in presidential races because they’ll never win and they don’t worry about campaigning in Massachusetts because they can’t lose, Wilhelm pointed out. They go to battleground states like Ohio. In CSR it means focusing efforts in places “where it makes the largest contribution.” Wilhelm advises that in CSR the time and money budgeted to a program should reflect its social value.

6. Have the courage to be repetitive
Candidates find themselves saying the same thing 10,000 times but they must remember that in every audience there is someone hearing it for the first time. And so the same follows for your corporate citizenship message.

7. Know the rules of the game.
In politics it’s about getting more than 50 percent of the vote. For CSR professionals, like every other aspect of the business, it’s about outcome and defining a value that can be measured. “Being judged on performance is a good thing,” Wilhelm said. It allows you to demonstrate that what you do is “consistent with making money.”

8. Create a collaborative organizational culture
On the campaign trail this prevents the sharing of negative information. In a business it means building buy-in within the company down to the operator level so that everyone gets it.

9. Speak to big values, not small facts
Politicians must have the ability to communicate in broad themes to master the eight second sound bite. Wilhelm sees the need for CSR professionals to articulate a specific social or community value. “You have to be a good communicator,” he said, and link your message to the value being created. “And you don’t want to be bringing it in just when there is a crisis.” 

10. Lose with dignity
In politics, quite obviously, 50 percent of all candidates lose. Not every corporate citizenship program is a success. “You will get knocked down if you try to make a difference and you take risks.” Wilhelm noted that to be “a player” for the long term in politics, or anything else, requires accepting losses with dignity. He said CSR professionals should know if they widely communicate their message and mission they will survive their losses.

Are these lessons ringing true for you? Looking back can you see where they came into play in your own corporate citizenship successes or failures?

Let us know about your own experiences on the campaign trail of corporate citizenship.

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