THE BLOG

Indiana and Arkansas Fail to Understand That the Question Is Always the Answer

04/02/2015 04:00 pm ET | Updated Jun 02, 2015

When dealing with the political, regulatory, media and activist actors that I call shapeholders, the question is the answer to every political contest.

Legislators in Indiana and Arkansas were the latest to find out this hard truth. In an increasingly contentious world, it is vital to know that in a policy skirmish, the victors are usually the groups that were most prescient in establishing their question as the focus of debate in the arena where they will fare the best.

Those who thought that social media would only be energized by issues related to the Internet or popular culture were proven wrong. Motivated individuals used social media to change the question in this instance from freedom of religion to tolerance and activated public opinion to prompt Apple and Walmart to speak out against legislation in Indiana and Arkansas.

Social conservatives chose the question, "Should we protect religious freedom, one of our cherished First Amendment rights?" and selected the venue of legislatures in generally conservative states. Gay rights activists saw an opportunity and changed the question and the arena. Their question was "Should we condone prejudice?" and asked it in the arena of public opinion, not just in Indiana and Arkansas but around the world.

Apple CEO Tim Cook, someone with a strong personal interest in the matter, took an assertive stand by writing an op-ed criticizing the legislation in Indiana. This is likely to be a net advantage to the company, given that the younger and more upscale demographic profile of its customer base is more likely to be supportive. My former colleague, Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, referenced his son's opposition while announcing his request for the legislature to alter the law, seemingly confirming Apple's calculation.

Walmart's decision to weigh in on the topic clearly allows the company to burnish its inclusiveness credentials but could be a double-edged sword. By showing that the corporation has a powerful impact on legislation, particularly in its home state of Arkansas, it will be subject to increased pressure to get involved in future disputes. Activists will have greater standing to assert that Walmart's lack of action on other issues reflects the company's tacit approval. That is why it is essential for every company to limit its political engagement to only those activities essential to its business purpose, one that benefits both its bottom line and society.

In these cases, Apple, Walmart, and a string of other companies engaged on this issue in an effort to shape the debate. The commercial soundness of such actions depends on the unique circumstances of each company.

The conservative activist response was largely responding to the question advanced by the opposition rather than coming up with a better question. That is a losing strategy.

George Will directing his ire at Apple's "selective indignation" based on its operations in countries with a poor record of inclusiveness like Saudi Arabia may play well to the conservative base but is an example of answering the opposition's questions. Laura Ingram's effort to advance the question "Should people in America be coerced to agree with popular sentiment?" was a more productive effort to promote a more appealing question.

Whichever side of this issue you favor, this is a prime example of how politics trumps policy. Perhaps if the legislators in Arkansas and Indiana had taken my new free online course "Business in a Political Age," they would have charted a more effective course.

Facing the power of the Internet to change the question and energize the arena of public opinion is the new norm in politics. It is essential for anyone wishing to shape the world to have strategies that address this reality.

Hon. Mark R. Kennedy (@HonMarkKennedy) leads George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management and is Chairman of the Economic Club of Minnesota. He previously served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and was Senior Vice President and Treasurer of Federated Department Stores (now Macy's).