The late 1970s and early 1980s have been a political watershed for large firms. On the surface, many companies established political action committees, most upgraded their public affairs programs, and nearly all increased their contribution budgets. Still, a less visible, but equally significant, activity is taking place below the surface: companies are looking for ways to develop the political consciousness of their own managers. Here the goal is not to encourage managers to run for public office or to enter political life as individuals; rather, it is to make them better able to understand and communicate the company’s political position as part of their regular management functions.
Many firms therefore conclude that a politically sensitive management can be just as important to a company’s political welfare as the more explicit programs of the public affairs office and the corporate political action committee. Consequently, these firms are initiating a range of programs in management political development. The reasoning is if large numbers of the firm’s middle and senior managers can be trained to better communicate with public officials, opinion shapers, and the public at large, the company will have a far broader impact on the political arena than if the public affairs staff were left to do it alone.
Certainly not all companies view their managers as an untapped political resource. Some still subscribe to what Irving Shapiro, who was then chief executive of Du Pont, identified as the traditional rules of management conduct: “Stick to business, stay out of trouble, join the right clubs, and don’t talk to reporters.”1 But many companies have changed the rules, thereby stressing outreach over introversion.
What Is Management Political Development?
Management political development means developing and improving a two-way communication flow between government and business. The desired result is to produce politically aware managers who are: (1) better equipped to understand the legislative process and key players in the nation’s and states’ capitals; (2) more cognizant of how public opinion is shaped and how it can affect the firm; (3) more appreciative of the power of environmental, labor, consumer, and other interest groups; and (4) more proficient in getting their company’s views across to public officials, the media, and opposing interest groups.
Although public relations and corporate communications offices have always specialized in political skills, what makes this concept innovative is that these skills are now being transferred to managers outside the specialized staffs.