Katie Lilley counsels to "Look Around the Corner"

At any given time, my brother, Matt, is responsible for the well being of hundreds of kids at the local YMCA where he works in Raleigh, NC. In order to keep things running smoothly, he constantly advises his staff to “look around the corner” – to anticipate issues before they happen and be prepared. And it’s a lesson that’s just as applicable for the public affairs space as we navigate a period of uncertainty. People are spending a lot of time and energy right now prognosticating about the upcoming midterm elections. No doubt, we are headed for some significant changes, and the outcomes will affect every level of government from Congress to state capitals to city halls. We continue to hear that Republicans are likely to take the House and have a shot at the Senate, but there will be shakeups all the way down the line. For example, Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory, predicts that as many as 13 state houses could move to Republican control (http://tiny.cc/iv3au).

But you don’t have to be a political expert to see what’s happening. Yesterday alone, Delaware political mainstay Mike Castle was defeated by a Tea Party upstart, and D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty was ousted in his primary. Senators Bennett and Murkowski are already out, and even the Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid, is fighting for his life in Nevada. Everywhere you look, people are clamoring for change – no matter the party affiliation of the incumbent.

With so much attention focused on Election Day, it can often feel like it is a climactic point – a finish line in a way. And don’t get me wrong, it’s hard to beat the drama and excitement. But November will really be just the beginning of yet another new period that will shape our lives, our businesses and our country for months and likely years to come.

Whether you find these changes to be welcome or unwelcome, they will create new public affairs challenges and opportunities for businesses and organizations. In just a few short months, positions of leadership will change hands; priorities will shift; new additions will get their bearings…and those elected will feel the pressure of a public with very high expectations on the people they just put in power.

With all of this upheaval, now is the time to look around the corner, to position yourself in the best possible way for the future. While no one has a crystal ball, you need to start thinking about how changes might affect you:

  • What is the current public sentiment around my issue or reputation? Do my goals reflect that environment?
  • What leaders are going to have the greatest influence over my issue?
  • What do I know about the possible new players?
  • What existing relationships do I have that I need to revisit or new ones that I need to cultivate as power structures shift?
  • Will there be new opportunities for me or am I now at risk of becoming a target?

Back in 2008, I felt like a lot of people were looking around the corner. The writing was on the wall as far as Democrats taking power and what that would entail. At the time, the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) was a client of mine, and they made a huge push well in advance of the election to have a seat at the table on healthcare issues, which we knew would be a focus. To that same end, Americas Health Insurance Plans (AHIP) came out in December with their own comprehensive plan for healthcare reform. Electric utilities adopted similar strategies, too, working through their national trade association, the Edison Electric Institute (EEI), to promote provisions that would insulate their consumers from sudden rate increases as the costs of compliance kicked in.

But now, in 2010, I’m not sensing as many proactive efforts on the part of the business and advocacy community. While the change will be different this time around, it will be just as significant as it was then, and we all need to do the early spade work to make sure we are prepared.

Ultimately, as soon as the chips fall after the elections, you want to have a public affairs strategy already in place. This will allow you to make the most of your time in November in December, laying the groundwork for your efforts in 2011. Too often, public affairs programs are reactive rather than proactive, but there is an opportunity here to get ahead of the game, even if the outcome is uncertain. So take a look around the corner and ask some tough questions of yourself, your team and your organization. If your competitors haven’t yet, odds are they will soon.

Published September 15, 2010.