Q&A with H&K’s Bartlett: The Public is ‘Willing to Listen to the Private Sector Again’

In part two of our Q&A with Hill & Knowlton/Public Strategies head Dan Bartlett, we focus on politics and public affairs.

Bartlett, who was known for being very close with former President George W. Bush from his days in Texas politics, was an aide to the President for more than 10 years until he announced his resignation in June 2007. Later that year, he joined Public Strategies and now sits in charge.

After the jump, we talk about the impact his political history is having on the present, and what he thinks the future holds for the 2012 election.

You have a long history in politics. How did it prepare you for your role in PR? And for taking a leadership role in PR?

Seven years in the White House, there’s probably not a crisis or challenge that can live up to some of the things I’ve faced there. You get… a pretty unique perspective on the challenges that our clients now face.

Politics and being involved in campaigns is ultimately about understanding and shaping public opinion. In politics you do it to get 51 percent of the vote or to get enough votes to pass legislation and there are a lot of different factors that influence that public opinion. Obviously, the tactics or the techniques used are constantly evolving, whether it’s social media or others. And I’ve found that typically those in the political sphere are on the cutting edge of using those tactics because politicians are very interested in getting reelected.

So I think there is a lot of crossover appeal that can help corporations and others manage their own public opinion. I have some unique insight that might be a broader perspective than they’re getting from the corporate environment that they’re in today. I’ve found the transition to be, from a work perspective, very useful. From a personal perspective, it’s nice not to be in the White House right now. The new job is much better in some respects.

How do you walk the line between shaping public opinion and some of the unsavory elements out there [used to accomplish that]?

The trends in social media and elsewhere come down to one thing and that’s authenticity. That’s why you see politicians like Gov. Christie in New Jersey who calls it like he sees it, counterintuitive to a lot of people’s expectations; Gov. Cuomo here in New York putting forth a very blunt message.

Millions of people are gravitating towards to not only socialize, but, more importantly, almost to validate key decisions they’re making in their lives.  Traditional institutions are seeing a degradation in their credibility. You’re seeing this shift where people are going to find people who have aligned interests and at its core is authenticity.

The challenge for companies – when they’re asked to be more aggressive in how they define themselves – is how do you do that in an authentic way. Politicians are always trying to figure that out, probably in a more strategic way than many companies because they stand for re-election so often. If you attempt to achieve somebody’s objectives using artificial [means], people can see through that and they have the access and the technology to allow that to be exposed. The public is yearning for that candid message.

In the eighteen months during the financial crisis and the election of a new President, there was a surge of support for government intervention in key sectors of our economy. As the economy improves and decisions are being made in Washington, that pendulum is swinging back to where the public is now willing to listen to the private sector again. I’d almost call it a “jump ball”: they’re kind of critical or skeptical of both. There’s an opportunity for the private sector and for non-government entities to have a conversation with the public again.