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Prior to joining the Direct Selling Association (DSA) staff a little more than six months ago, most of my professional life in Washington, D.C., was devoted to public affairs and strategic communications consulting, where I helped large, highly regulated industries and companies make a compelling, value-driven case for themselves. I was like an attorney, only I sought to defend clients from attacks that contributed to a negative reputation by changing the conversation in the court of public opinion.
Many of my former clients were in the health-care business, and, at face value, improving people’s quality of life and health, saving lives and keeping health-care costs affordable for millions of Americans should have been huge assets to the industries and companies I served. The reality, of course, was starkly different: Organizations with noble missions established to do some good in the world were rarely, if ever, perceived positively. On the contrary, it was they who were seemingly responsible for nearly every problem in health care: costs, quality, access and errors.
After joining DSA with this background, I was amazed at how many assets we have within reach that could help our industry enhance its reputation over time. Our challenge isn’t finding tactics to implement. Rather, our challenge is determining the right way to unlock the best of direct selling to leave a positive impression with the audience that provides the greatest opportunity to move the bar.
For every industry, enhancing reputation must begin and end with selecting the right target audience. Having a positive story to tell is not enough; that message must also resonate with its intended audience to be effective.
Many big companies spend tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars on integrated, multi-year reputational efforts because success demands a continual play for volume of consumers—that is convincing large numbers of people to make purchases, which drive revenue targets. Because sales could come more easily when the buying public has a positive opinion of or identifies with a corporation, multinationals like Microsoft, The Coca-Cola Company, IKEA and Target are recognized for expensive, highly visible campaigns that may enhance already well-established brands. These companies recognize rightly that such efforts offer a competitive advantage in the marketplace.
Headquartered in Washington, D.C., and committed to working with policymakers at the federal and state level on initiatives that protect consumers, DSA is substantially different from companies driven primarily by marketing to generate sales. Therefore, it is logical that our biggest opportunity to enhance direct selling is by focusing efforts to improve reputation directly at these same policymakers. The justification is straightforward: Policymakers, uniquely among Americans, hold the power to legislate or regulate against direct selling companies if their opinion of our industry is negative, or if they believe our self-regulatory approach doesn’t go far enough.
Influencing policymakers is admittedly a nuanced business. On one hand, most are intently reactive to public opinion, which is why grassroots will always be in demand and some reputational campaigns are directed at the general public. Yet at the same time, what might resonate with Joe Q. Public—for example, a big company headlining an annual charitable event—may be taken for granted by, or not substantially resonate with, a policymaker audience. This is especially true in climates when the company, or the company’s industry, has come under scrutiny and negative headlines begin to circulate. A positive message on its own—or even concrete actions that don’t address criticism raised in the marketplace—isn’t usually enough to move the bar on reputation with policymakers.
As we seek to influence them on direct selling, the good work that our industry does can only be part of the conversation. Added to these positive stories of opportunity and resolve must be a deliberate effort to clarify our business model that will allow policymakers to see more clearly the substantial value derived from it. We also need to provide more evidence of our economic impact through credible research that can better help us make this compelling case. Focusing on direct selling’s strong commitment to ethics and responsible business practices that protect consumers is another critical area where we have an extremely positive story to tell.
Finally, and importantly, if we are to be successful at moving the bar with policymakers, we must continue to find ways to increase our relevance in the news cycle so that we are able to inject our point of view into forums and discussions we know policymakers will notice.
As someone who has spent most of his career focused on reputation for big industries and companies, I am extremely excited to throw my energy into these challenges and opportunities. Enhancing the reputation of direct selling among policymakers cannot be achieved in a communications silo. It must be a true public affairs effort that touches our entire program, including the conferences and events we host, the industry research we release and, of course, the policy positions we pursue.
Paul Skowronek is Senior Vice President, Public Affairs, at the U.S. Direct Selling Association.