The rise of the angry voter: observations and questions for business (UPDATED)

2016 continues to shape up as a year of the “angry voter” in the West, as evidenced by such phenomena as Donald Trump’s unexpectedly high poll numbers at this late stage of the U.S presidential campaign, the narrow victory of the “Brexit” referendum to take the United Kingdom out of the European Union, and strong electoral showings and polling numbers for anti-establishment political parties elsewhere in Europe.

With very little academic or practitioner research on the current situation, it’s difficult to tell directly what the current trend towards voter anger means for businesses and for business communicators.  But it’s worth looking at the question – to what extent does a person’s political anger spill into his or her behavior as an employee or customer?

Here are some observations:

  • Angry voters are angry because they are insecure

Fears and dissatisfaction about economic standing and social status have long been recognized as drivers of voter anger, and that insecurity will almost certainly manifest itself in customer and employee behavior.

  • Not every voter is an angry voter

Even with the surge in popularity for anti-establishment and anti-immigrant parties and candidates in the West, they are not the majority.  Even support for Brexit was barely over 50%.  So voter anger is a strong trend but not the whole picture. It’s something to account for, but not something that is yet overwhelming .

Some practical questions:

1)   Should you adjust your tone?

Brand voice and internal leadership tone often reflect a one-way flow of power in the relationship, but employees and customers who are challenging the establishment at the voting booth may well bristle at being talked at, or in the case of the use of the “corporate We,” spoken for without their explicit consent.

2)    Is there any shared dissatisfaction that can be used to build common ground?

Although angry voters have been presented as being driven by such factors as racism and xenophobia, there may be issues of common dissatisfaction where businesses can tap into and get ahead of voter and employee anger and be seen as making a tangible contribution to address matters of common interest

3) Is this a time for organizations to be brave and challenge misconceptions?

The idea of diversity in societies and organizations is implicitly being challenged by the tone of the current political climate.  But studies show that diversity benefits organizations even when feared by some employees. Could this be the right time to make that case in a fact-based and emotionally resonant way?

4) Is it time to change the messengers?

At a time when mainstream corporate leaders as well as political leaders are being viewed with increasing suspicion, could this be a good time to think about making better use of mid-level employees and trusted peers as advocates of organizational messages? This year’s version of the Edelman Trust survey has some interesting insights in this regard (see slide 21).

OPPORTUNITIES

Recognizing that the dissatisfaction among voters has the potential to color their relationships as customers and employees is a step that can help safeguard organizational credibility in volatile times. At the same time, the current political climate presents an opportunity for organizations to address pressing issues that could strengthen their relationships, and draw more heavily on the credibility of line employees as channels and advocates. Organizations should not ignore the changes in the political environment, and there may be opportunities to seize by looking at the broader picture.

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