Four million small business jobs are supported by exports to foreign markets. They work through the supply chains of multinational corporations to tap into new customers or sell directly online, and depend on the ebb and flow of international trade and investment more than they may realize.

So where was all this good messaging when trade died ingloriously last summer?

This impacts small business in a huge way--and I'll get to that in a moment. First, we need some background.

As an issue, trade has become a pariah in Washington, D.C., an unwanted house guest shunned from one political party to the next. Once a uniting issue for coastal Democrats and farm-state Republicans, trade and investment have become toxic in many ways as politicians play the blame game for job losses in the 21st century economy.

Much of this misses the point--that automation and the "rise of the robots" has driven job loss far more than increased competition from international trade and low-cost imports from Mexico, India, and that (gasp!) evil of all evils, China. An honest and open conversation about this changing world between elected officials, business leaders and workers would allow us to talk about solutions instead of just problems. But given the state of the trade conversation today, that's probably not going to happen.

Part of the breakdown of trade as a live issue was the lack of offensive defense played by its supporters, including and especially the business community. Many business leaders kept their powder dry as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a Pacific Rim trade agreement that would have covered 40 percent of the world's economic output, was being negotiated in the Obama years. While they quietly worked to improve the policy inside the proposed treaty, which would have covered everything from beef and rice to financial services and express delivery, their opponents were busy tearing it apart.

Organized labor was opposed to the Trans-Pacific Partnership early on, despite the importance of international markets to steelworkers, longshoremen, and truck drivers. From the right, populist, isolationist voices worked aggressively to tap into blue-collar discontentment, particularly in the Midwest.

They spoke out early and often against trade negotiations, painting their elected officials into a corner over an agreement that hadn't even been finalized. Business interests large and small eventually launched an aggressive counter, but by then it was too late.

So why does this matter for small businesses?

In Washington, the trade banner is carried often by the Fortune 500, and not enough column inches or network primetime is devoted to telling the story of the small business owner and his or her overseas growth opportunities. While there's certainly a receptive audience--politicians on both sides of the aisle are hyper sensitive to local business voices in their districts--the story needs to be told, over and over, until the points are driven home for good.

And here lies a crucial communications lesson: Failing to provide public cover allows your opponents to define your issue.

By not acting on the issues that matter to you and providing political cover for your champions and any fence-sitters, you're opening up an opportunity for others to set the narrative that suits their purposes. Ask any old trade hand in Washington, and they'll tell you that pre-emptive communications and advocacy would have left the issue in a much better place than it is now.

And with 41 million jobs supported by trade and another 6.4 million Americans employed by international companies investing in the U.S., the effect of the lost trade communications battle for businesses large and small will be felt for many years to come.