by Dean S. Goldman, president, Goldman & Associates Public Relations
Most business leaders are natural-born behind-the-scenes people. Out of the glare of the public spotlight – especially the news media – deals and ideas can be brought up in the company of the right people, hammered out and, when necessary, shot down.
All without outsiders even knowing that anything was ever up. All without anyone’s failure or conflicts being known beyond the conference room door.
While in some cases that is the effective route to take — deals and business relationships start out delicate as fine crystal — there are times when the public should be in the loop:
- When public presentation can further your aims and give you credibility in the court of public opinion.
- When the political leadership is not listening to the point of view you espouse on a particular issue.
- When you take exception to an editorial.
- When broad public support to protect or enhance your interest can be useful to the effort of gaining adherents or financial backing.
- When addressing your peers on an issue they need to heed.
Go public the right way
The key is going public the right way. Calling the beat reporters for the local newspapers and television stations is one tactic. But it may not be the most effective. Even if they see a story in what you want to say, keep in mind that one of the jobs of reporters is to filter out what they deem to be irrelevant or of minor significance. To put forward your ideas without the reporter assuming the role of intermediary, the letter to the editor or the op-ed essay (op-ed means the page opposite the editorials) offers the greatest opportunity to be heard in a calm, rational forum.
As a business executive, your view of the world – whether it’s the world outside your window and down the street, the world in the offices of regulatory agencies, or any other sphere — is the view of the real world. People pay attention to opinions grounded in practicality and real-world experience. It can be a useful tool in your continuing efforts to foster your business’s image as being the leader, head-and-shoulders above the competition.
Like everything else in the newspaper, these pieces are subject to editing. They are read over for grammar, spelling and punctuation – and to make sure they fit an allotted space – but not for conformity to the newspaper’s own opinion.
Letters and op-eds
Generally, letters to the editor are three to seven paragraphs and are responses to something currently in the news. If Congress, the state legislature, or the local city council takes up a bill that concerns you and you want to share substantive reasons why it should pass, be defeated or be amended, here is your opportunity.
Your first paragraph should include who you are and what you are addressing. (“As the owner of an insurance agency that writes hundreds of auto policies, I would like to express support for the proposed DUI bill under consideration in our state legislature …”)
The middle paragraphs should make points buttressing your opinion in a very hard-hitting manner that doesn’t waste a word. (“Alcohol played a part in 41.1 percent of highway fatalities in Virginia in 2002. Every driver wants to keep his or her premiums as low as possible. Not drinking and driving is one way to accomplish that …”)
Your last paragraph should summarize your conclusion. (“A combination of personal responsibility, a lower blood-alcohol tolerance level, and no-excuses and no-exceptions enforcement will result in fewer deaths and serious injuries due to alcohol and will save lives …”
Your op-ed essay is a little different. It may run as long as 600 words – about three-quarters the length of this essay. It is showcased – either displayed in a “box” on the page to enable it to stand out from everything else, or given prominence by including your picture, a different headline typeface, or some other device that calls it to the reader’s attention. While it also may be directly responsive to a news event, it also affords the opportunity to reflect thoughtfully on a “big-picture” issue.
For example: You city is considering a regulation that will harm your ability to do business. Discussing how that harm will adversely affect employees, consumers and anyone else can be done effectively in a letter to the editor. Expressing long-range solutions to an issue (“We can have growth without sprawl …”) citing past successes (“Redeveloping strip malls as traditional shopping districts with grid-patterned streets, pedestrian-friendly amenities such as benches facing the sidewalks has worked in such places as …”) and rebutting countervailing points of view (“Neither the developer nor the environmentalist should be overlooked…”) takes a little more space — space that an op-ed column provides.
Regardless of which is more appropriate at a given time, putting your opinion out there for the community to evaluate can be a critically important component of your business and community.