< Browse more articles
Government Relations is a Contact Sport 

By Brendan Hawley                      

The more people you know, the more they know you. Over time, as your range of government contacts expands and deepens, you move from the periphery of influencing opportunities to become a stable asset in the minds of government. You will know when you are that asset when you are called upon to comment on government activities before they see the light of day. It is the same in media relations - to be called about a story or to comment on a story before it is published is the gold standard.

But moving up the C-B-A list is not happenstance, nor is it achieved by knowing “someone” in a Department or a Minister’s Office. That is why government relations advisors charge the fees they do. You leverage their networks and understanding of how Ottawa (or your provincial capital) works until such time as you can take charge of the process yourself.

But like managing any relationship you need to be consistent in your dedication and investment of effort – moving incrementally forward all the time. A one-hit wonder, regardless of how thrilled your Board members may be to have met Mr. or Ms.  “X” is simply that - a one hit wonder. It’s not a relationship. Chances are you were one of a variety of events that day and will be soon forgotten.

I will pause here to cite an anecdote that involved a member of government. Over three separate meetings and an exchange of business cards (yes, they still matter) the individual absorbed and questioned material. Finally at the termination of the third meeting the individual produced a business card and encouraged a meeting with an expert third party on the matter. As it happens, the expert third party was the same one who initiated the first briefing. And that person was me.

Now, that was a learning opportunity.

Put yourself in the mind of the individual you are trying to bring into your political eco-system. Meetings take place by the thousands every day.  As an example, MPs usually get about 800 e-mails per day; many more for a Minister. Each evening, MPs, Ministers and staff have a smorgasbord of up to 6-8 events they can attend.  Are you so self-assured, naive, or smitten with self-importance to think that your one meeting will make a difference?  I think not.  It’s a good start. 

So how do you start populating your political eco-system? In my practice I have identified seven core elements of a professional government relations program. And you can validate your program, activities, resources and budgets based on these criteria.

These areas are:

1. Issues scanning

This function determines how an organization identifies, analyzes, and assigns a priority to regulatory and policy issues relevant to its charter or business objectives. Tactics would include: developing a Government Relations Plan with objectives, strategies, action plans, timelines and resources identified; having a formal scanning process to identify emerging issues through formal or informal networks; having an Issues Test to determine what issues should be addressed and with what priority; establishment of a Government Relations or similar committee to audit the plan, provide resources, and speak to results on an annual basis. 

2. Regulatory and policy communications

This function determines how an organization communicates with its executive management, employees or membership on policy and regulatory matters with recommendations for intervention and compliance as required. Tactics would include: development of an inventory of issues, or an Issues Grid, that sets out the issues, organization stance, status reports and intervention tactics; development of information tools such as seminars, information bulletins, or workshops to help member companies understand changes in the regulatory environment; regular communication activities such as policy updates, tracking reports and other activities to provide members with current intelligence on regulatory issues.

3. Insight and Mentoring

This function determines how an organization sustains ongoing contact and interaction with officials (elected and non-elected) at all levels to cultivate an effective working relationship. This activity produces a referral network for the organization. Tactics include: developing a list of key contacts with authority to influence decisions; developing a formal contact plan to ensure that key officials are met with at least semi- annually; integrate communications into the contact plan so contacts receive policy statements, press releases, Fact Sheets, industry surveys, speaking notes, presentation decks and other information products to ensure they are aware of industry issues and priorities.

4. Political Advocacy

This function determines how an organization builds support for its views. Tactics include: developing a network of Members of Parliament whose interests (economic, ideological, fraternal) are linked with industry views; developing information kits/decks for MPs for briefings; organizing contact meetings with key MPs and industry members. Recently one very effective technique was the development of an MP “school” that combined classroom teaching with site visits.

5. Policy Development

This function determines how an organization ensures that it is consistently invited to participate in key consultations on legislation and regulations affecting its operations and to ensure industry views are taken into account. Tactics include: identification of departmental initiatives,  information exchanges, forum and seminars; development of a formal internal process for developing and confirming industry views on issues; documenting industry points of view; building alliances with other associations and groups to help leverage impact and resources.

6. External Communications

This function determines how an organization ensures that its interests, expertise, opinion and policy positions are known to the public and other audiences. Tactics include: identification of key stakeholder audiences and allied groups for communication efforts; development of communications plans in support of specific activities; development of media contacts and media relations plans; ensuring crisis communication plans are developed for sensitive issues; media training for spokespersons; media monitoring and participation in editorial boards, letters, speeches and other tactics to situate the organization as a credible, willing and accountable voice on industry issues. 

7. Management Alignment, Engagement and Budget Support

This function determines how an organization ensures that a connection exists between the executive management of the organization and its government relations strategies and plans. Tactics include: identifying any gaps between the functional activities of the organization and its advocacy mandates; development of an annual plan and budget for government relations; hosting an annual strategic planning session for the organization; and providing regular accountability reports on activities and results.

To boil all this down you want your management and your political audiences to be as knowledgeable about the issues at hand, why they are important to you, and how you or your team or handling them. And make sure all political parties are engaged equally. Much is accomplished behind closed doors and provided everyone has the same information, your chances of success increase - and often with active collaboration department officials and members of the government.   Some issues move slowly – a major legislative initiative can take years – and others move more quickly - tweaking of an obviously poorly designed regulation may be cleaned up in a few months.    

Don’t oversell your capacity to create conditions ideal for your organization; but don’t undersell your capacity either. Constant engagement will tell you how you are doing.

One common flaw I see is that organizations sweep into Ottawa for an event and leave the next day. For senior executives that is okay, provided you follow up with the person in some fashion. Maintain the contact. And know the contact. And know why the contact is important to you.

Too often groups come into Ottawa and parcel out briefings so that their leaders get some face time on the Hill but end up giving baby talk to government officials with deep expertise and professional qualifications in their area of interest. It’s easy to research this stuff. You don’t need to know them down to their blood type…..but you need to know them.

As I said, politics is a contact sport.