The Lincoln Rules: Applying Democracy to Corporate Communications


A set of four rules articulated by Abraham Lincoln in 1840 can help corporate communicator create richer, more interactive and more effective relationships with the people upon whom success depends.

(Note: a version of this was first published in Ragan Report, European Supplement, June 2003)

Discussing employee research methodologies with a prospective client at a prominent London financial institution, the client recounted an admonition from his recently departed CEO, when asked about the prospect of an online employee survey. “We will NOT run this company by referendum”, bellowed the Chief Executive.

What corporate communicators often don’t realize—is that in actuality, every company and marketplace is run by referendum. Every corporation is in some respect a democracy—even if it doesn’t feel like one.

What do you mean, a democracy? A major logical fallacy present in the way organizations communicate is one where the organization acts as if the targets of an official communication have no choice but to accept the message as the truth, at face value. But in reality, the target is completely free to accept or reject the message—and to ‘vote’ on its acceptability in any number of ways. Going to work and keeping your head down is only one way of ‘voting’. Inside companies, other ways of voting include:
• Choosing whether to show up, call in sick, or walk away from the job
• Choosing whether to attend to appointed tasks or to surf the internet
• Choosing to resist, support or obstruct change initiatives
• Choosing to express supportive or cynical views about co-workers, managers, or company policies to their colleagues.

In the external sphere, there are a wider variety of ‘voters’, whose support or opposition could have massive impact. Some are more obvious—the unsatisfied customers who can switch products or suppliers, the irate shareholders who could sell up—or turn the shareholder meeting into theatre of the absurd, or the disgruntled employees who can vent about their companies over drinks in airport bars, in the press or on the chat boards on the Internet. With public and employee cynicism toward corporations at or near an all time high, looking at companies as operational ‘democracies’ offers an opportunity to renew, rebuild, and re-energize a company’s key relationships.

The Lincoln Rules: Democracy’s Toolbox

If one wants to apply the notion of the company as a democracy in a practical way, a set of tools for making things happen in a democracy could prove useful to a corporate communicator. A set of four rules articulated by Abraham Lincoln in 1840 is one such toolkit—time-honored for its simplicity and effectiveness. The rules, first spelled out in a speech by the future President to the Illinois Legislature are:

• Make a perfect list of all voters
• Determine with certainty whom each voter will support
• For someone who is undecided, send someone in whom they trust to persuade them
• Turn out all the good Whigs on Election Day

These rules may seem basic, simple, and self-evidently applicable to the task of winning elections. But applied in a corporate context, each rule provides a framework for recognizing the freedom each voter has to make his or her own choices and share his or her opinions. In recognizing this freedom the corporate communicator can use the rules to create richer, more interactive and more effective relationships with the people upon whom success depends.

Make a perfect list of the voters
A perfect list does not necessarily mean the ‘list of all employees’. More frequently, it may mean a list of all individuals who can influence an outcome—or at least of those most likely to influence an outcome in a certain way. No list is ever perfect—but continually maintaining lists and looking for ‘who’s missing’ will keep it valid and relevant.

Determine with certainty whom they will support
Knowing with certainty whom is on your side not only provides you with a sense of your odds of success, it also forms the basis of building a support team to expand your coalition—by working with them to engage their peers, friends, and colleagues to seek their support for the current initiatives.

Send someone in whom they trust
In engaging people who are undecided, or are persuadable to a point of view, they need to be made see that backing that point of view is tangibly in their own self interest. Anodyne messages from the CEO—or worse, the disembodied ‘Voice of the Corporation’ is not going to cut it. Identifying credible individuals who agree with the corporation’s positions, support its desired outcomes, and are willing to act as advocates–is arguably the most important success factor in any change initiative that requires any degree of persuasion.

Turning out the Good Whigs
Unlike election campaigns which focus on a single day, corporate initiatives often require a continual series of ‘election days’ where people need to take action to deliver particular outcomes. Having a clear understanding of the key people who are on your side provides the ability to mobilize your supporters to act, consistently, effectively and responsibly. By using knowledge of how your support base is structured, it is possible to develop mobilization programs (either centrally or through a team of credible people throughout the organization) that encourage people to take the required actions and deliver the outcomes in question.

Why the Lincoln Rules are Really Different

Fully integrating the Lincoln Rules into corporate or organizational communication strategy may well require a paradigm shift for communicators and the organizations they work in. But there are some clear advantages to those who wish to take the leap:

1) The Lincoln Rules do not release anarchy—in fact, quite the opposite. By acknowledging the freedom people already have in making choices about participating in your corporate initiatives, they provide the ability to engage people in a way that authentically respects their freedom.

2) The Lincoln Rules challenge an organization to get a clear picture of where support or opposition to its desired outcomes can be found—thus building a foundation for a credible mobilization campaign—and highlighting the challenges in the way of success

3) By focusing on identifying, connecting and mobilizing those people who actually see their own self interest in the success of corporate priorities, it is possible to build on those connections and develop lasting lateral and direct communication networks to complement the organization’s formal channels. This approach also delivers outcomes based on the personal credibility of network members—as opposed to glossy design, clever wordsmithing, or expensive executive conferences.

4) Energy and passion are channeled by focusing on the people who care about and support initiatives—rather than dulled or destroyed by ill-tailored, one-size-fits-all communication approaches. In short—using the Lincoln Rules begins by appreciating the democratic nature of the social dynamics that exist in any organization. By then using political tools, the communicator can take the underlying reality of democracy in the organization to deliver specific results through targeted communication, and building on the help of credible leaders at all levels. At one level, it’s not much different from seeking ‘buy in’ or ‘stakeholder management’—but the fundamental difference is that these political tools reflect the ability of each individual to vote yes or no, and to ‘lobby’ their colleagues—and users take that freedom into account when tackling corporate communication challenges. 

Mike Klein, VimpelCom

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