In the last few years, a lot more folks in Silicon Valley seem to have an interest in policy and politics around specific tech and business issues. But as a relatively new area of interest in the tech community, there seem to be misunderstandings about how to win in this kind of politics. Here are the 3 counterintuitive elements of a winning strategy from my years working at the intersection of politics, business, and technology.
(Disclaimer: Just like with a startup, the program of winning on your goal this year is distinct from changing how the system works over a decade or more. There are questions of ethics, hard trade-offs, and rarely black and white answers.)
1. Frame your issue as business rather than as wedge and don’t tie it to elections.
A wedge frame is one that splits supporters along party and ideological lines. A wedge frame makes for good electoral politics. Think more regulation or lower taxes. But electoral politics is a zero sum-game. When one party wins, the other party loses. And along with it so does the chance of a substantial majority on your issue. Having your issue enmeshed in electoral politics make it more likely to be a decade-long struggle rather than a quick win.
A business frame is one that’s not aligned with party or ideology. At a high level, it’s motherhood and apple pie. And in the details, it’s too arcane for electoral politics. Think intellectual property or bilateral trade agreements.
When an issue is framed in this way, elected officials in either party can support it without pressure from an emotional base. When done right, the result is “the most polarized House ever” passes legislation by substantial majorities:
2. Build trusted relationships with elected officials in both parties and enable their success in the ways they care about.
Having framed the issue as non-electoral and non-ideological substantially expands the number of ways you can be helpful to and trusted by elected officials in both parties and their staff. And you need to build these relationships before you need them.
Thoughtful VCs often advise startups that it’s hard for them to invest if the first time they meet the founders is during active fundraising. Just like in deals in business, in the politics of business, longer-term trusted relationships determine what you’re able to do.
So what does building a relationship look like in practice? It looks like:
- introducing yourself as a business leader in their district;
- introducing them to other leaders;
- sharing your stories and challenges in a way that they can use as social proof;
- providing background on your issue, including who they should expect on the other side;
- earned media coverage for them at your event;
- and attending fundraisers and contributing to election campaigns.
Notice that the last of these gets the most attention but is just one small piece of building a relationship. And also notice that it is not about buying their support for an issue contrary to the interests of voters in their district. (More on the misreading of the role of money in politics in another post.)
3. Tell your story in the language of politics not in the language of tech
In tech, a good enterprise sales person quickly picks up her customer segments’ needs, language, and culture. The best do it with sincerity rather than veiled disdain. In interacting with the world of politics, you need to do the same with elected officials.
For example, disruptive is a positive attribute in tech, less so in the public sphere where continuity, stability and precedent are favored both in policy and politics. You can often get more done quickly without a very public mantle of disruption, and only in rare cases need to go there.
Elsewhere on winning in the politics of business:
Thanks to @keoughbob for feedback on an earlier draft.