Politicians Always Know How They Poll — But Does Your Business?

To say it is an unfriendly environment out there for government leaders these days is an understatement. From the Facebook revolutions in the Middle East to the European financial crisis to the U.S. debt limit debate, it’s been a tumultuous year. It’s a wonder that there are nine Republicans in the United States who actually want President Obama’s job.

Tea Party favorite Michelle Bachmann has won the Iowa Straw Poll with Ron Paul a close second. Tim Pawlenty finished a distant third and decided to drop out of the race, while Texas Governor Rick Perry joined the race. To put the Iowa Straw Poll in perspective, however, remember that the winner of the 1987 Iowa Straw Poll was Pat Robertson. The eventual Republican nominee, Vice President George H.W. Bush came in third.

Despite all the attention on the Republican contest, Gallup still has President Obama winning over an unnamed Republican candidate by 45%-39% and the current average of his job approval rating on Pollster.com is 43%. Other eventual two-term presidents had similarly low approval ratings at this time in their presidencies; President Reagan’s approval rating was 43% and President Clinton’s was 46%.

Taking a closer look, what likely will matter longer term is President Obama’s perceived job approval on the issues that matter most to people. Despite the media’s focus on the debt ceiling debate, the economy remains the most important issue, by 60%-16% over the deficit. To reinforce this point, 49% of Americans say the most important economic issue facing the nation is unemployment rather than the budget deficit (27%).

In the United States a recent CNN poll  found President Obama with a 34%  approval rating for his handling of the economy — his lowest rating on the economy since taking office. Even if the deficit were more important, President Obama receives only a 34% approval rating for his handling of the deficit as well.

The news is worse for Congress as the CBS/New York Times Poll recently registered its highest disapproval for Congress ever at 82%.  According to a recent Gallup Poll, only 21% of Americans think most members of Congress deserve reelection. Members of Congress can take some comfort in the fact that 54% of Americans think their member of Congress deserves reelection, up 5 points from the 49% reelect just prior to the 2010 wave that gave Republicans control of the House of Representatives.

These ratings are all on the heels of the debt ceiling agreement that averted default by the U.S. government. But it may be Standard & Poor’s historic downgrading of the debt that is the seminal event that sticks with voters through to the 2012 election. First, people paid close attention to this issue. Asked in a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll how much they have heard about the downgrade, 45% say they paid “a lot” of attention and another 36% say they paid “a little” attention. Second, the majority of Americans (52%) thought the downgrading was fair. Finally, 71% think the assessment of the nation’s political system as “less stable, less effective and less predictable,” was fair.

How can the above political numbers inform corporations? Well, one of the most important things we have as a result of all of the media polling that takes place from week to week is perspective. We know where opinion was before a major news event and where it stands after an event. If most companies encountered a crisis, would they be able to say the same? Many companies may have market research about their brand or products, but likely lack a measure of their reputation among key constituencies.

In today’s 24/7 news and social media environment, no corporation is immune from an event impacting how key audiences or constituencies perceive them, and it is those constituencies — the public, customers, opinion elites, investors and analysts among others — who grant a corporation its license to operate as a public institution. Without a baseline measure of the opinions of these audiences, there is no way for a company to measure the impact of a crisis or event. Further, without a measure of the impact of an event on opinions, there is no way to know what the scope of a company’s response should be to the event.

Companies in various industries including financial services, energy and automotive that had a baseline measure of reputation before a crisis hit have gone into a period of crisis with greater perspective than those without such a baseline measure. Further, they have been better able to determine the appropriate response to the crisis as a result.

The wealth of public opinion data available about politics and the economy make it easy to measure the impact of an event on public opinion in the political arena. This is not generally the case with in the corporate arena. That’s why current best practice is for companies to establish a benchmark measure of their public standing so that they are prepared if and when lightning strikes.