Handling Controversy in a Rapidly Evolving Social Culture

a.k.a. How to Not Get Burned in the Dumpster Fire

By Colleen Walton, Marketing Strategist, Brand Acceleration, Inc.

In the wake of the West Virginia teacher strike, it’s hard not to wonder what impact it will have on economic development efforts across the state.  Regardless of where you come down on the issue, it sheds light on two things that are vital to site selectors and c-suite executives – reliable education and a responsive government.  No matter how you look at it, West Virginia is airing its dirty laundry for all to see.  And site selectors see.

Whether it’s controversial legislation (like North Carolina’s HB2 or Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act), the handling (or mishandling) of a natural disaster, or a rabble-rousing politician, economic developers are often saddled with problems they don’t create.  In some cases, these problems can greatly impact their ability to attract jobs projects to the state.

So, when controversy strikes, how should you proceed?

Option 1:  Do nothing.

I had a management professor in college who told us, “When making a list of possible solutions to a problem, always include ‘Do nothing.’”  By not expressing an assenting or dissenting opinion on an issue, you can keep above the fray.  You will avoid upsetting anyone, and you don’t set yourself up to look like a fool if things don’t go your way.  Just keep trucking along like nothing’s happened and wait for it to blow over.

The downside to doing nothing is that it can make you appear out of touch.  If you don’t at least acknowledge the issue, you may look like you don’t know what’s going on in your own state.  How can site selectors trust you to help them negotiate at the state level if you can’t be bothered to keep up with what your state is doing?

Option 2:  Get rowdy.

From your position of power, you can adamantly defend your side of an issue.  You can use social media to express your opinions, tweet directly to your elected officials, and highlight the things you would do differently if given the chance.  It’s a divisive tactic, but come Hell or high water, people will KNOW where you stand!

Unfortunately, you’re likely to upset at least half the people you interact with.  There are going to be prospects who look at you and think, “This person is an idiot.”  Once a site selector sees you as someone they fundamentally disagree with, you’ve blown your chance.

Plus, you’ll look like a grumpy Gus who can’t play well with others.  Good luck convincing anyone you can successfully negotiate state-level programs after you publicly call your governor a buffoon (even if they are one).

Option 3:  Take a moment.

Depending on the issue, a quick response can come across as either reactionary or opportunistic.  After Charlottesville, cities and counties that immediately removed their Confederate statues were applauded for finally doing the right thing, demonized for jumping on a bandwagon not everyone supported, or portrayed as using the situation to boost their public perception.  By taking a step back, you can assure people that you’re assessing the situation in order to respond appropriately.  It says, “We see there’s a problem and want to be sure to proceed in the manner that’s right for us.”

The biggest challenge to this plan is public pressure.  Your local stakeholders may push you to respond before you’re ready.  As the Charlottesville situation reached critical mass, communities across the country saw their residents take the matter into their own hands.  You may not always have the time and space you need to reflect and respond.

Maybe the best thing that can be done, especially when the bad news is beyond your control, is to just stay focused on your positive attributes. When your state is facing an upheaval that you cannot correct, stay focused on selling your strengths. Know your story and stay on message.

In an ideal world, everyone would consider the economic development ramifications of their actions.  Citizens would consider how protests reflect on a state’s ethics.  Politicians would recognize how their partisanship can alienate potential new businesses.  But the world is far from ideal, so we must muddle through.

We’ll never be free of controversies, so economic developers and their stakeholders need a plan for how to face them when they come.  Take this time to sit down with your board/authority/whatever to discuss your response to a less-than-ideal situation.  What will you do if your governor goes to jail?  What will you do if your state government passes anti-LGBTQ+ legislation?  What will you do if your state becomes the battleground for the Second Amendment?  Don’t wait until you’re in the throes of it.

Also, assign a spokesperson.  There should be one person to whom all questions are deferred.  When asked questions by someone on the street or in a local restaurant, for example, the practice should always be to defer to the official spokesperson.  The adage that “loose lips sink ships” is one to remember.  Whether speaking to the media or a resident, the is no such thing as “off the record.” Everything said is part of the public discussion.

Extra advice:  No matter your plan, it needs to include a contingency for a rogue agent.  If your mayor goes off the rails on social media, know how you’re going to shut them down – even if it means walking into their office and physically unplugging their computer.  Drastic times…