“Slippery Slope” or “Weakest Link”: Political Triage

Where a product or position is becoming the focus of public outrage, is it wiser to defend it vigorously or drop it speedily?

This question comes up with great frequency and yet seems to receive very little analytical thought. Many companies and trade associations seem to know that it’s there and yet often seem powerless to address it. In some cases, this is because of the legal difficulties involved in looking at such a question in a trade association meeting. In quite a few others, however, the problems seem to be psychological and, in particular, emotional.

The default position of many trade associations and companies is to defend the status quo. So, the alcohol producers defend the currently existing regulations on the product across Europe, even though virtually nobody outside the industry now regards the current position as acceptable. Relatively minor applications of chemical products are defended against environmental criticism, despite the fact that the criticism would receive little media coverage if the minor use were dropped. Genetically modified food was set back by 10 years in Europe, because those introducing it would not countenance the idea of introducing those foods first, least likely to arouse consumer suspicions. There are many such examples, and the cumulative cost of such refusals to address questions of the potential for public outrage must be truly vast.

The explanation for such a widespread phenomenon is likely to be complex. Nevertheless, three important elements strike us as being worth noting.

1. Mistaking scientific or legal accuracy for public legitimacy.

2. The desire not to be seen as retreating.

3. Defending is easier than creating.

1. Mistaking scientific or legal accuracy for public legitimacy.
A surprisingly large number of companies see dealing with these issues as a “technical” question. That is, until the issue becomes an urgent threat to shareholder value, it is dealt with through trade associations, regulatory lobbying and that strongest of defenses against the need for thought: “we are right on the science/law”. It is only when major purchasers of the product start to withdraw as a consequence of fear of brand damage through using the product in the face of public outrage, that the senior management begin to realize what might happen. By then, of course, it is far too late. Scientists and lawyers should be relied upon for their expertise in their relevant fields, not for their assessment of likely consequences in the field of public opinion, politics and regulation.

2. The desire not to be seen as retreating.
“If we give in and withdraw from this controversial product/category/activity, we will be on the slippery slope in which our business will be continually buffeted by ill-informed media campaigns and pressure group activity”. What this means, in practice, is that the media and pressure groups have found a sucker company. If this line of argument is accepted, the product or activity of the company likely to most damage its reputation is the one that will become the “poster child” for both the company and the sector. It is as if a military commander insisted that the enemy should always choose the battlegrounds.

3. Defending is easier than creating.
Defending the status quo requires knowledge, creating the future requires imagination and determination. In any senior management meeting defending the status quo will always seem the best available option. It provides the maximum leverage for currently available company knowledge. It protects a currently existent market, rather than addressing the inevitably risky question of what the market is going to look like in several years’ time. Many of the people who are involved in defending company interests in the trade associations and regulatory processes are of an inappropriate disposition to be “changemakers”. The largest company in any particular sector is usually the most vulnerable to this sort of“incestuous amplification” . Each sector has its unique problems with issues of “public outrage” but the strategic choices not considered are remarkably similar one to another.

On the HLC site you can find how this issue plays out in your sector.