In an age where nearly every issue is political fodder, an increasing number of debates around substantive public policy proposals are being waged through tweets and sound bites. Fostered by the advent of social media and click-driven journalism, important and complex issues are more vulnerable than ever to misinterpretation, spin and knee-jerk policy-making.
Change of Pace in the Political Agenda
As in most parts of the country, new regulations in Oregon and Washington frequently come about as a result of a highly visible crisis or failure. In the past, public policy and business leaders would come together at these times to navigate a responsible and prudent path forward, balancing a diversity of public interests toward a common resolution. Today, these proposals are increasingly driven by a groundswell of activism on social media, as opportunistic interest groups leverage current events to drive their agendas.
Change that once happened slowly now comes all at once, as politicians are forced to scramble in response to high-profile events and the ensuing fallout across social media channels. In a noisy environment, these leaders have to amplify their own volume – or risk facing a backlash of public criticism. Posture, rather than policy, is what wins in 2016.
For unregulated industries, these situations present challenges of PR that are unique from their regulated counterparts. Where regulated industries are able to lean on a record of compliance, pointing to their adherence with industry rules and standard, unregulated industries face a nebulous environment that is infinitely more complex. Without a system of formal standards and practices in place, these companies are presented with the public relations challenge of making a case based upon public good, consumer demand and trust.
Uber & Lyft: Entering Regulated Territory
Take, for example, the worldwide expansion of ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft. As the global reach of the company has grown, their business has entered new markets previously served by regulated taxi cab industries. These encroachments have resulted in public disputes with politicians, taxi-cab unions and even women’s rights groups.
Clearly, these ride-sharing companies have something to offer a public that is less than satisfied with the pricing and services offered by traditional cab companies. That is why Uber has a valuation higher than Ford and General Motors. But, as they have sought to offer services without the traditional regulatory standards, they have faced a litany of PR crises, including viral videos, labor protests and even criminal activity committed by its contracted drivers. Many of these episodes resulted in public outcry for new regulations.
As businesses like Uber and Lyft expanded, they relied on a message of public good, consumer demand and trust. From the companies’ perspective, their ride-sharing services provide a societal good in way that their traditionally regulated competitors do not. It saves the environment, utilizes an existing supply of cars of the road and provides a convenient and safe option to get home after a long night out. As early adopters grew to experience the convenience and positive attributes of this model in initial markets, they helped cultivate a customer base demanding the service in new areas.
The companies also launched initiatives designed to build and preserve public trust, maintaining consistent and visible messages around safety, liability protection and data collection policies.
Tips for Operating in Unregulated Industries
Companies that operate in unregulated industries can prepare for the impact of a high-profile crisis by laying the groundwork early, to ensure they are able to respond to public demands for new regulations. They should be able to:
- Articulate how their products or services serve a public interest
- Have a sharp understanding of the consumer demand for their products
- Take proactive steps to build public trust
By focusing on these three principles, they will be ready to engage when the inevitable crisis arises.