Business tips from the campaign trail

It's not all Super PACs and mudslinging. In fact, every business executive can learn valuable lessons from inside the Beltway and on the campaign trail.

Just because every American seems to be fed up with politics and politicians doesn't mean every business executive can't learn valuable lessons from the Beltway.

I've been following some of the most successful campaigns of the past four years and have embraced five public relations strategies in particular that have worked like a charm. See how many make sense for your business:

Go on a listening tour.

While it didn't exactly work for Hillary Clinton in 2008, it makes a world of sense for any senior executive charged with increasing awareness and enhancing credibility. Too many C-suite executives are content to hunker down in their corner offices and rely on the latest market research reports to determine their positioning and messaging.

Don't be a lemming. Grasp what the Beltway strategists already know: What worked last year won't necessarily succeed this time around. That's because your target audiences are better informed, more skeptical and less loyal than ever.

That dictates a listening tour. By that I mean monitoring online and offline audiences each and every day. Find out the individual wants and needs of every constituent. When appropriate, engage in conversations with them. And, remember that, if you don't keep listening and framing your positioning with the findings, you'll end up unemployed, declaring bankruptcy, or both.

If Mohammad won't come to the mountain...

Beltway strategists go far beyond listening tours. They insist their candidate hit the bricks and press the flesh. Senior business executives need to do the same thing. In fact, it's critical that a CEO and her marketing communications team routinely meet key customers and prospects. Far too many of my peers rely on second-hand information from sales forces to formulate their programs. Don't fall into the Ivory Tower trap.

Ask to be a fly on the wall as your sales executive wines and dines a key prospect. Attend trade shows and conferences where leading industry issues and trends are discussed and relationships formed. Again, don't rely on the sales team to be the sole point of contact. The candidate (in this case, the CEO) needs to be in the trenches (and so, too, does his or her communications team). The same holds true for employee meetings. Don't rely on a human resources executive to tell you the health of the organization. Don a lab coat, wrap a stethoscope around your neck, and examine the patient yourself.

Anticipate the negative.

While most people think politicians are only good at slinging mud, they're actually incredibly adept at responding to negative news. That's because Beltway strategists anticipate potential crises by simulating them. They actually stage a mock crisis and evaluate, in real time, how each member of the campaign staff should (or shouldn't) respond. You should do the same.

Examine your business. Identify the vulnerabilities. Could your business be interrupted by a cyber attack? What about product recalls? Workplace violence? Whatever your particular Achilles Heel may be, simulate the actual event and decide who, on the management team, is responsible for what. It's so much better to figure out a crisis response strategy before the crisis ever occurs.

Don't forget third-party endorsements.

While it may have been temporary, do you remember the huge bump New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's endorsement gave to Mitt Romney's campaign? The same occurred in 2008 when John Kerry endorsed Barack Obama. Third party endorsements should be part of every organization's business communications strategy. You should routinely reach out to strategic partners such as the presidents of industry trade associations, leading academics, heads of NGOs and others to create co-bylined articles, co-sponsored speaking engagements and other win-win strategies.

Better yet, form an "official advisory board" consisting of external advocates, create a microsite linked to your home page and provide a new bully pulpit for them to wax poetic on their views. You'll be providing free publicity and, God forbid, when the proverbial sh*t does hit the fan and your CEO is led away in handcuffs, the advocates can be called upon to provide critical (and highly credible) third-party endorsements about the fundamental soundness of your business.

Keep your friends close...and your enemies closer.

Beltway strategists live in a 24/7 war-room-populated world. They are ever vigilant to trends and issues as well as what their opponents are saying and doing. You should do the same. With new and affordable tracking software such as Radian6 available, there's no excuse for you to not have the latest news and announcements of your entire competitive set pushed to your desktop, laptop or PDA each and every morning.

When you do, you'll be able to formulate a rapid response that, in some instances, might even outflank your competitor's big, new product announcement. Beltway strategists earn their stripes by turning an opponent's apparent victory into a smoldering ruin. And, you can do the same.

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