The pre-election period will be a quiet time for most federal bureaucrats; those who want to connect with these individuals should be prepared for possible disappointment. That said, there are plenty of opportunities for government relations practitioners. These opportunities are rooted not so much in building relationships with decision-makers, but in a growing demand for advice among those who want to organize their future advocacy efforts.
There isn’t a Canadian alive who is unaware of the close and unprecedented nature of the upcoming election. In this uncertain time, only those with an intimate knowledge of the inner workings of Canada’s federal government can offer guidance. Many in the private and nonprofit sectors have come to this realization, and they’re now seeking outside advice from government relations (GR) firms. Those with active in-house practitioners are tapping these individuals aggressively, searching for applicable insights.
In short, the federal election has come to be what’s known as a “triggering event”, causing an uptake in demand for GR services. The real question now is, how can firms ensure they keep their new clients? As for in-house practitioners, how can they meet the new expectations they face?
Threats Posed by Regime Change
It seems everybody in and around Alberta’s political scene learned something from Rachel Notley. Never say never. There’s always hope. Don’t get too comfortable. For the province’s lobbyists and government relations practitioners, the lessons were more straightforward.
Immediately after the NDP government was elected, agencies like Navigator, Impact Consulting, and Canadian Strategy Group began hiring professionals with strong NDP connections. Even these quick-thinking firms must have scrambled somewhat – the province’s PCs had, after all, been in power for four solid decades. As a result, most consultancies hadn’t thought much about their lack of political diversity. After the election, they quickly learned an unpleasant lesson: complacency is one of the biggest threats to those in the GR world. Why? Because it’s one of the biggest threats to their clientele.
It goes without saying that regime changes can strongly impact businesses and organizations. Take, for example, Calgary’s Chamber of Commerce. Within days of Notley’s win in Albetra, Calgary Chamber president Adam Legge was warning his members to “take a deep breath” and avoid overacting. He stressed the necessity of working with the NDP in a way that was “not combative, not challenging”.
It is perhaps unsurprising that Legge felt the need to make this assertion. During major political shifts, panic can set in among stakeholders. Suddenly, the issues they care about have to be approached from completely different angles. Of course, new approaches don’t have to lead to disaster. And the instinct of many companies and stakeholder organizations to seek out government relations expertise (or double down on in-house efforts) is usually a good one.
The Calgary Chamber’s strategy was to arrange early meetings and a keynote address. Whether you work for a GR firm or are part of an in-house team, maintaining an open mind and acting fast are the keys to managing change.
The NDP sweep of Alberta provides a dramatic example of just how much can change in an election. One of the biggest changes was in perception. Given that such an unexpected political shift is still part of Canada’s consciousness, it’s no surprise that stakeholders are looking to cover all of their bases for the federal election.
Parlaying strategic advice into something more
There’s no doubt that stakeholders are in the right frame of mind to ask for input from GR professionals. They remember what happened in Alberta, and they don’t want to be caught in a similar situation. There’s a real opportunity for GR professionals to take on advisory roles. But these roles are accompanied by some unavoidable challenges.
Take, for example, clients who paint ideologies with broad strokes. These individuals want to choose courses of action based entirely on how far right or left parties are on the political spectrum. They rely too heavily on their own assumptions, which can complicate the process of providing thorough analysis and advice.
For clients and executives who are more politically engaged, the questions are different. How will the issues I advocate for be affected if the NDP takes power? What might a Liberal federal cabinet look like? If a coalition government somehow forms, how will the advocacy process be complicated?
Such questions are useful, but far more complex than they appear on the surface. Clients who expect simple, straightforward answers will likely be disappointed. During elections, more than any other time, things change quickly; those who want to work with government must be ready to change with them.
With regards to advisory, there’s also the issue of proving return on investment. For GR professionals, proving ROI can be difficult in the best of circumstances. Positive impact can be hard to measure. This difficulty is multiplied when government circumstances limit concrete action. Of course, preparedness is priceless. Clients and managers know this – if they didn’t, they wouldn’t be seeking expert help during the election period. But it’s only natural that these individuals will want to see results, even when they’re aware of the limitations their GR advisors face.
So, what can be done in these situations? In order to demonstrate ROI and prove the validity of the advice they offer, GR firms need to maintain the trust and support of their clients over an extended period of time. Those working in-house need the to maintain their managers’ confidence. But how can hypothetical advice and pre-election preparation be translated into long-term relationships and ongoing recognition?
As practitioners know, there’s no quick fix when it comes to demonstrating your worth as a GR professional. In the eyes of most clients, worth is determined by two things: results, and demonstrated knowledge (a potential indicator of future results). When I say “knowledge”, I’m referring largely to the capacity to gauge the likelihood of potential political scenarios.
As stated in the previous section, the ability to get results is dependent on lasting long enough with a client or manager to progress from hypothetical action to concrete action. Demonstrations of knowledge can help you get there, but in order for these demonstrations to be effective, certain elements are crucial. In addition to experience and an advanced capacity to assess complex scenarios, an ongoing awareness of pertinent facts is a must.
To properly construct the scenarios that help shape long-term strategy, practitioners must keep track of at least some the minutea surrounding the election. Taking a comprehensive view – one that includes political developments, government announcements in the press, and relevant public opinion – will prove most beneficial. The parliamentarians, parliamentary candidates, and bureaucrats you choose to keep an eye on will (of course) depend on the issues you’re advocating.
Looking for Resources?
At this point, I’d like to introduce a free Gnowit resource that will make it easy to track media coverage related to any and all parliamentary candidates.
I should mention that, to use this media tracker, you do not have to provide an email address or any other personal information. We are offering this service for the sole purpose of keeping Canadians – including those who have a professional interest in the outcome of the next election – informed.
To find an interactive overview of the coverage surrounding any parliamentary candidate in any riding in Canada (including sentiment analysis, content summaries, and key topic identification), simply click the link below. Please note that we will be enabling new search features related to this service in the coming weeks.
During the pre-election period, GR professionals should explore many different options for staying informed. Whether you decide to try our free tool or not, we at Gnowit wish you a very productive couple of months.