Interview with Reed Galen by Mark Preston

At Post asks practitioners to describe how public diplomacy is incorporated within their professional activity. In this interview, PD’s Mark Preston spoke with Reed Galen, Managing Director for Mercury Public Affairs.

1. Given the rise of globalization and new technology, corporations must continually develop new competencies to meet the demands of multiple stakeholders.  Could you describe your role in facilitating collaboration between public and private sector organizations?

At our firm, we provide services to companies and organizations that are looking for greater involvement in the government space or to solve a public affairs problem.  This may relate to legislation, procurement or rulemaking, or whatever their specific issue may be.  We tailor our efforts to the given task drawing on experience and real-world strategies that will allow us to present the most compelling case on our clients’ behalf.  Once we have determined what strategy is best suited to the project, we develop a set of tactics that will help us achieve our clients’ goals.

2. Based on your observations, what are some common communication obstacles that corporations face both internally and externally?  What solutions would you advise?

This is something that all organizations, large and small, corporate or government struggle with.  The most successful institutions are those that have a clear vision, strategy and set of goals, which provide a much simpler message to communicate both internally and externally as there is far less ambiguity.

Perhaps one of the more challenging obstacles that companies wrestle with involves horizontal communication. Because in large companies, any one individual has a set of very specific responsibilities, tunnel vision can set in.  Making communications across divisions or sectors often seems to be difficult.

However, that can also be more of a business management issue rather than just simply an external communications issue.  Some executives may see public relations and communications as not that much different from the function of human resources (HR) in the sense that both are often perceived as ancillary functions to an otherwise productive company and are not business units in and of themselves.  Yet, like HR, corporate communications is a true necessity.  This is especially true when things go wrong.

In the world we live in today, having very talented corporate communicators who can explain the media environment to their executives in a comprehensible way  is important because there is no such thing as a secret anymore (as we have seen with WikiLeaks).  Secrets are gone.  As such, much of what a company sets out to do is for public consumption, whether they want it to be or not.  In years past, what was said in the boardroom stayed in the boardroom.  However, today, simple conversation can go from the boardroom to the front page in a hurry.  I think that even though the Internet has been ubiquitous for more than a decade, instant communications continue to evolve and accelerate.

3. How can public diplomacy serve as a tool for corporations and governments to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes?

Companies and governments should pursue public diplomacy as they would anything else: With a clear, honest message that speaks to, and not at, the people to whom they are trying to communicate.

I think that the best way that American corporations can project their goals to the rest of the world is by being transparent and straightforward with a global audience.  By illustrating how their goods and services can benefit the lives of people everywhere, the American corporate ecosystem not only becomes more accessible but also more credible among a growing base of international consumers.

4. In addressing the shared problem of climate change, to what degree do innovative solutions depend upon the government listening to the recommendations of major corporations?

I think the greatest thing about innovators is that they don’t typically wait for anyone to listen to them.  They have a great idea and a passion for exploring it.  Government should always be willing to listen to those on the cutting edge of their field; they will ultimately be the ones that create new jobs and even new markets altogether.

However, this question is also fundamentally political in nature.  The White House and congressional Republicans have decidedly different viewpoints on environmental issues and what the federal government’s role should be in facilitating green jobs and green tech.  For instance, President Obama is a firm believer in the electric car and has already pushed grant and loan programs through the Department of Energy in order to provide tax credits and other incentives to spur adoption of new eco-friendly practices.

The truth is that ultimately, the market will determine how the green sector evolves.  Consumers will buy electric cars in greater frequency once that vehicle does everything that a gasoline powered car does at a comparable cost that excludes a multi-year payback.  The new Tesla Roadster is supposed to get over 200 miles to the charge.  That is very cool!  However, it still costs around $50,000 dollars to purchase.  While you may get a federal tax credit for purchasing an electric vehicle, the final price is still beyond what the average American is probably willing to spend.

Innovators will always be innovators regardless of what government does.  It will be an individual, rather than the government, who will create something extraordinary like a car that goes 700 miles to the charge.  Nonetheless, it remains a political as well as ideological struggle within the United States about what green tech is going to look like.

Despite this uncertainty, corporations continue to create clarity with each new development.  For example, some large big box stores have made many contributions within the “green space.”  They are not doing this just to be good corporate citizens, but they also realize that incorporating environmentally-friendly technology is good for business.  Efficient practices save money on everything from energy costs to product manufacturing expenditures.  Ultimately, this brings costs down for the consumer too.  So, there is a market-based way of being environmental.  Do these practices ultimately benefit their bottom line?  Sure.  But they also pay dividends for customers by lowering prices on the products they often purchase every day while using less gasoline, drawing less power off the grid, etc…

5. What do you think are the implications for the greater participation of corporations in the political sphere, both domestically and internationally? How do you think questions about accountability might be addressed?

Domestically, after the Citizens United decision, the law is clear.  Corporations may participate in the political process.  However, we should delve a bit deeper into what that means.  Large, publicly traded corporations may determine that, while they have the right, it’s not necessarily in their best interest to participate directly in political campaigns.  Additionally, any company who chooses to make political donations also knows that transparency is their ally; there are few, if any economics for a corporation to disguise their political activities.

Although, even after the Citizens United ruling, there have been examples where corporations have become politically involved and had it backfire.  So, I think you are mostly likely going to see publically traded companies proceed with caution in this realm because for the price of a campaign ad if the person you are supporting loses, what do you do with the winner?  How do you move forward with them?  In other words, there is a cost-benefit analysis that a lot of corporate executives have not yet done because it hasn’t been an issue.  However, I think even when they assess this matter, I’m not necessarily sure that they will participate.  Politically attuned corporations in this country have robust lobbying activities that advocate on their behalf that is often a far more cost effective and practical way of expressing their view on a given policy or piece of legislation.

Internationally speaking, there are many places with no rules.  So, accountability is difficult.  In the United States, there may be some who say there is too much corporate money in politics.  However, the First Amendment protects just about everyone’s opportunity to participate in the political process whether you like that or not. 

6. What fundamental lessons have you learned throughout your career and would like to share?

Most of my management experience comes from the political campaign world.  Sometimes you believe a campaign is going to have a certain outcome but turns out completely differently than you had originally expected.  They are never as easy as you think they will be and rarely have straight-line trajectories.  I have been lucky in my career to have worked on several large, winning campaigns and those were great experiences.  But those were situations where the candidate, message, management, resources and other key variables were excellently aligned.

However, there have been other campaigns, those that typically did not win, where I truly learned how much I didn’t know.  It’s easy to look good when you have every last resource readily at your disposal.  It’s those campaigns in which, on a daily basis you must determine how to move forward, that you truly learn.

Perhaps the most important lesson I can share is that you have to be willing to take some risks.  Without risk, it is very difficult to achieve your goals.  Success doesn’t typically just come to you.  If there are things you truly want to accomplish in your career, you are going to generally have to go find them. This is not to say that great opportunities don’t pop up when you least expect it.  But, you need to be prepared to go out and find what you want. With risk, however, you must be comfortable with the attendant possibility of failure.  Failure, while no fun, is an excellent teacher and fear of it should not discourage action.  It is often failure that helps refocus your thinking, challenge your paradigms altogether, and ultimately lead to success.

Reed Galen is Managing Director of Mercury Public Affairs in the firm’s California offices handling major corporate clients.  Prior to joining Mercury, Reed served as Senior Consultant at Goddard Claussen Strategic Advocacy.  While there, Reed worked extensively in the California public affairs sector and managed several ballot initiative campaigns; involved in all aspects of research, strategy and message development.  Reed also has extensive campaign experience, having served as Deputy Campaign Manager for John McCain’s presidential bid and was Deputy Campaign Manager for Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s successful 2006 re-election campaign overseeing all day-to-day management of the organization, budgeting and finance.

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