From the September 2011 issue of Investment Advisor • Subscribe!

PR Primer

As the Dixie Chicks learned—and the FPA may find out—dabbling in politics is a dangerous game

I don’t belong to AARP, although I more than qualify and they’ve been sending me membership forms for years. Sure, I’d probably benefit from their myriad discount deals, but AARP is also involved in politics, using the muscle of its nearly 50 million members to influence laws and regulations in Washington and around the country. Yet, its positions aren’t the result of any formal democratic process and often don’t reflect my view of what is good for us seniors or what is good for the country as a whole (sometimes self-interest isn’t the best basis for political decisions). If an organization is going to have that much power in my name, I’d at least like to have a say in how they use it.

My feelings about AARP came to mind when I read the July 18 press release by the FPA about the debt ceiling debate that was then raging in Washington, D.C. By the time you read this, the U.S. debt ceiling will undoubtedly have been raised, and the debate over skyrocketing federal spending temporarily postponed. The FPA’s decision to stray from its long-standing precedent of not wading into political issues, however, appears to signal a real policy change—one that could have long-term consequences that are historically fraught with danger. In fact, both the release and the new FPA position would make a case study of why good PR professionals are worth their weight in gold.

Of course, the FPA, through the Financial Planning Coalition, was involved in the writing of the Dodd-Frank Act and the SEC’s deliberations about how to implement it. This was simply business as usual: There is a long precedent for the FPA, the CFP Board and other advisory organizations playing a role in the writing and applying of laws and regulations that govern the conduct of financial advisors. While the positions they advocate may ultimately be supported or opposed by one party or the other, the positions they take have been grounded not in politics per se, but by what’s in the best interest of financial consumers, which is a hard-to-argue-with position for professional organizations to take.

Macroeconomic issues such as the current national debt do not fit so neatly into professional concerns, and consequently run the risk of spilling over into partisan politics. In a recent conversation, Paul Auslander, FPA president-elect and one of the driving forces behind the release, assured me that the organization’s intent was addressing “the looming crises of Federal default” without taking a partisan position. But their press release itself reads anything but, particularly the headline: “FPA Calls on Congress to Raise Debt Ceiling.”

One can only assume that the folks who wrote this release were unaware of the situation in Washington, which has resulted in disagreement over the future of the debt ceiling (not a good sign for people dabbling in politics). As with many disputes, admonitions to simply “settle it” often play into the hands of one of the parties involved. This reminds me of arguments one not infrequently has with a spouse, where one spouse wants to “talk about it” while the other simply wants the issue to go away (I’ll leave it to you to fill in the genders here). Suggestions from an outside party such as a counselor to “just settle it,” clearly would favor the go-away party.

In the case of the debt ceiling issue, the “go-away party” was clearly the administration: The Republican Congress threw a monkey wrench into business as usual by not simply raising the limit on federal debt without assurances that additional spending would be controlled. To be fair, the FPA release did also read: “But Congress and the President should take serious and substantial steps now to address our nation’s grave fiscal imbalance. No financial planner would advise a client with a debt problem to get a larger line of credit without having a commitment and a plan to address the underlying problem.”

Unfortunately, that admonition was buried in the copy, which then went on to echo the administration’s predictions of doom and gloom should the debt ceiling not be raised. In the communications biz, we call this “burying the lead.” Rather than blindly jumping on one side of the issue and running the risk of alienating half of their members (and probably a lot more than that), the FPA had a legitimate tie-in here, in the idea of debt management.

By taking the position that controlling out-of-control debt—whether it’s on credit cards or the federal deficit—should be given a high priority, the FPA could then have gone on to point out that rarely is the solution to simply stop paying one’s debt, or to make drastic cuts in one’s spending to the point that the kids aren’t getting clothes or the grandparents aren’t getting medicine. In either case, we need a sound plan to bring out-of-control spending under control.

They might even have talked about the role of the credit rating agencies in the debt ceiling “crisis.” It’s true that both Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s have warned that if the U.S. government were to default, they’d lower our credit rating (which they did in early August). Setting aside that these watchdogs somehow failed over the years to warn us about the debt problems of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, AIG, Enron, mortgage-backed securities or bonds from several bankrupt countries, they now don’t actually tell us how likely default is should the debt ceiling fail to be raised: Couldn’t the administration simply prioritize debt service and make other cuts?

What’s more, Moody’s says we’d be a better credit risk if we eliminated the debt ceiling altogether. Seems like that might be an interesting topic for financial planners: So the problem with teen credit cards is that they have a charging limit? Is the problem in Washington that we’re squabbling over raising the debt limit or that the debt limit needed to be raised in the first place? As then-Senator Obama said when he voted against raising the debt ceiling in 2006: “The fact that we are here today to debate raising America’s debt limit is a sign of leadership failure. It is a sign that the U.S. government can’t pay its own bills… . Increasing America’s debt weakens us domestically and internationally.”

You could probably come up with an even better financial planning spin. My point is that not only did the FPA muff an opportunity to showcase the expertise of financial planners, they ran the risk of alienating a substantial portion of their membership by failing to fully analyze a very complex situation before wading in. There’s a reason why business folks are advised to avoid talking about politics or religion: Both tend to invoke strong emotional reactions about subjects that are not directly related to business.

This is where good public relations help can be invaluable. To get an expert’s perspective on a business or organization entering the political arena, I called my friend Jennifer Connelly, founder of JCPR in Parsippany, N.J., and one of the smartest PR people I know. As you might imagine, it’s not unusual for Connelly’s clients occasionally to talk about commenting on some political situation or other: Unless they have a really good reason that directly ties into their business, she almost always talks them out of it.

“It’s very dangerous for any firm to enter into new territory, and politics is the worst,” she said. “If you simply want to generate some publicity, there are a lot lower risk ways to do that. The key is to have a well-thought-out strategy that starts with what you want to get out of it. Do the potential benefits outweigh the risks? And once you’re out there, then what? Are you prepared for the fallout? You need to be 12 steps ahead and consider every possible outcome.”

The good news is that Auslander said of the few dozen emails the FPA received in response to the press release, “the vast majority was positive. Financial planners want the FPA to be out there, and according to our informal polling, most of them want the debt ceiling raised: They don’t like getting client calls about it.”

I agree whole-heartedly with Auslander: I, too, think the FPA should be “out there” more often. In fact, I believe one of the reasons that the Financial Planning Coalition hasn’t had much of an impact on advisor reregulation is that they haven’t had much of a public presence. But as part of “being out there,” I’d like to see the FPA as an advocate for clear-headed financial thinking. Sticking to strictly financial matters is a lot safer; leave the politics to pundits and fools. Can you say Dixie Chicks?

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