I’ve spent as much time in my career doing government relations as I have public relations. In theory and practice – it’s about relationships. It’s ALWAYS about relationships. Media. Public. Government. Stakeholders. All Relationships. All take time (and resources) to cultivate, nurture and build value from but most importantly – maintain.
More so than in other disciplines however, I believe that public affairs – call it government relations, lobbying or advocacy, the challenge is maximizing relationships in the shortest period of time so that you there is an authentic and sincere relationship. You don’t have to be best friends with your key political stakeholders, but be aware of what drives them, and in turn, ensure they know what drives you.
I had lunch with a colleague recently and he described how he was working to help an organization leverage federal money for a program they were hoping to develop. I asked how often they were engaging the minister, his staff and the officials in the specific government department. He’s response was – that they “had a conversation with the a senior staffer in the minister’s office about two years ago.” I was stunned. Maybe it’s because I work in the space, but it’s not really that hard to figure out. If you don’t maintain an engaged relationship with key influencer’s, decisions-makers and those who hold the power and resources to help you be successful, how can you expect they will keep you top of mind?
Keeping in mind that the political circles in Canada can be very closed and protective. Cracking those inner circles is like navigating a labyrinth of frustration. This is where the persistence and determination of some organizations lead to stronger results than other organizations. If you need a primer or a kick-start – hire a firm that specializes in public affairs.
It’s amazing to me how often I meet people or talk with companies or organizations who just don’t know where to begin. So, for the novice I will outline some positive things you can do to improve the success of your public affairs strategy.
Have an answer to your problem. Going to a staffer, parliamentarian or senior official with a problem without an answer to your challenge will diminish their interest in helping you and your credibility.
Your answer should be negotiable. Extreme or hardline positions will not win you friends. ‘Your’ solution may not be ‘their’ solution – so the better you understand the motivations of the government as a whole and the objectives of the department/ministry you’re dealing with the better off you will be. Work together to solve the problems.
Government Officials will listen. More often than not have a mandate to engage with stakeholders. So find the right ones and meet with them. This takes time and effort but it can be very useful. I once had a meeting with officials who were using data that was nearly 2 years old as they planned for the year ahead. Providing counsel and good data is supremely helpful.
Government Officials will be protective. Canada is blessed with some incredibly bright bureaucrats be it in Ottawa or the provinces. Senior staff are proud and often will be defensive of their own programs and initiatives because it’s what they know. That is to say, new things you may want to bring into the mix will require a tremendous amount of energy. Even the best ideas take time to bring to life.
Political Staff are vitally important. And fiercely guarded, highly political (obviously) and almost always younger than you would expect. Do not discount their influence and role. If you are not a known commodity to them, you will have a difficult time accessing them and their elected leadership. So get out there. Be present.
Engage and be responsive. If you are asked to present at parliamentary committee – do it. If the government makes a positive or supportive announcement – send out a press release. If they ask you to attend a roundtable, go. This is part of building that relationship and frankly, is pretty simple stuff.
So, while many believe that they should go straight to the top with their issue. Yes, by all means, send the PM a letter outlining your concerns. No doubt, the Prime Minister is deeply concerned about your issue… but really hasn’t the capacity to manage it. That is where your key cabinet minister’s come in to play.
In 2014, our organization was privileged to host Prime Minister Harper at an event where among many other things, he opened up about the stresses and pressures of the job. He noted that the demands of the role likely couldn’t be fulfilled by 6-7 simultaneous prime ministers. (44:00 minute mark below) Its good advice and good reason to devise a strategy that includes all the right people at the right time.