Considering the Public Interest

Starting with what's in the public interest, not just in your private interest, can lead you to new, innovative ways of addressing problems that disarm critics and persuade community members you are a good actor.Taking into account the public interest is an important step to ensuring your issue management strategy connects and resonates with the audience you need to influence.

You may have good arguments, but if they don't respond to the concerns of your audience, they may well fall on deaf ears. Injecting the public interest into your planning and thinking is one way to avoid that audience disconnect.

A good example is a company that wants to build a facility on a riverfront location. You may want to talk about jobs and economic opportunity, but your audience may be more interested in your safety and environmental record.

And it may not be enough for you to tout your own record. Your audience will probably want to hear from people just like them in other communities where you operate similar facilities.

The bottom line of your success may depend on going the extra mile to ensure your facility pushes the envelope in its safety features and operational best practices. It may need to exceed the norm, not just meet it.

Yes, that can mean extra upfront cost. But if you think about the public interest, the expense is really an investment in community goodwill and your reputation. 

When I handled public affairs for Tektronix many years ago, I was required to make a credible public interest case for every issue that I advocated for on behalf of the company that was then Oregon's largest private employer. That requirement made me think differently about issues facing Tektronix. It made me consider viewing issues as opportunities.

When OSPIRG proposed an initiative to require companies with major air permits to disclose annually what and how much they emitted into the air, I argued for and received permission from Tektronix to work with the advocacy group on legislation to avoid a messy, costly ballot measure campaign. 

My starting point was agreeing to an OSPIRG demand that a company CEO had to sign a document listing the pollutants his or her company put into the air, a therapeutic action intended to make top management aware of its environmental footprint. My ask was to make the reporting process simple and straightforward enough so it didn't create a paperwork or regulatory nightmare and the general public could understand what was being reported. 

Despite some hissing from a few business groups who thought the bill went too far and from activists who didn't think the measure went far enough, the community-right-to-know legislation passed. Over time, it worked by giving companies a clear incentive to reduce their air emissions.

Without worrying about the public interest, the tack I might have taken would have been far different — and, as a result, not as beneficial to the reputation of my company.

Taking into account the pubic interest built trust for Tektronix, which was valuable because of its significant environmental exposure as a manufacturer of integrated chips, computer displays, plastic moldings and circuit boards and as an operator of a temporary hazardous waste storage facility less than a block away from an apartment house and trailer park.

Starting with what's in the public interest, instead of what's in your private interest, is a smart way to position yourself to persuade key audiences and determined critics that you are a good actor. Acting in the public interest is a smart step toward good business.