For many government relations (GR) practitioners, the election period is a challenging time. There are questions about the appropriateness of involvement in political activities, uncertainty about how to make the best of political downtime, and the risks associated with building future strategy based on a set of hypotheticals (a necessity in any organization that wants to be prepared come October 19th).
This particular election has been fraught with uncertainty. Competing levels of support for three parties – including, for the first time, the NDP – has contributed to an increasingly-complex political landscape. With all eyes on the campaign trail, our federal leaders and the teams that support them have been working to make a positive impression.
As the major election issue, the economy has been a focal point around which a good deal of political messaging has been developed. GR practitioners must consider these economic messages as they decide how they will approach government officials in the near future. Here are some things to keep in mind during the campaign, and after the seats have been counted.
Understand the landscape
Research and analysis are the bedrocks of good GR strategy. More often than not, analysts must devote their attention to government legislation, proposed regulatory changes, and other information that is best acted upon immediately. But the possibility of regime change can bring with it an additional set of priorities; ensuring that the right team members are prepared to build relationships regardless of who is in power after the election is usually one of the biggest.
To begin with, a big-picture understanding of the current political landscape is a must. Filling in the gaps with regards to background information – which may include parliamentary records, media interviews, and anything else that could shed new light on existing political players – is a good first step.
Seeing present circumstances clearly can help teams begin to think about the near future. Who might be included in a Liberal cabinet? Once such hypothetical questions have been answered, GR practitioners are in a much better position to shape potential courses of action. In contrast, an unwillingness to engage with all possibilities could lead to last-minute confusion, as we saw when the NDP took power in Alberta earlier this year. How many public and government relations firms scrambled to find people with the connections and expertise they had never before considered cultivating?
Of course, understanding the current landscape means understanding Canada’s economic issues. What are the biggest issues in the eyes of voters? What promises are party leaders making to win over the public, and how might these promises play out after the election?
In the recent Globe and Mail debate, Justin Trudeau discussed the Liberal plan to invest in infrastructure, including transit. Any interests involved in this area – including companies that manufacturing buses and nonprofit environmental groups, among others – would want to pay special attention to any announcements about proposed budgets in this area.
This is government relations 101. Understand what you have to work with and maintain reasonable expectations. Throughout this campaign, Canada’s leaders have been asked to justify their plans as they relate to a challenged economy. Those planning to lobby government officials must take public expectations and the responses of federal party leaders in mind.
When the issues you’re advocating for are on the radar of at least one of the major parties, remember that there’s great value in working with like-minded organizations to advance shared causes. Consider recent attempts by the Canadian Medical Association (CMA), which has been the driving force behind a coalition of 30 health organizations advocating for a national seniors’ care plan. A recent Hill Times article describes the difficulty groups like CMA are encountering as they try to get federal leaders to engage with healthcare issues in an economy-focused election. It’s the concerted effort of a large number of individuals that’s making an impact.
Align and clarify your asks
At a time when Canadians are focused on the economy and politicians are scrutinizing one another’s expenditures, asking for too much could be a fatal mistake. So too could making requests that do not clearly align with stated government objectives. In order to break through the defenses of economically-minded government officials, GR professionals will need to present cases that are difficult, if not impossible to dismiss. Of course, this is easier said than done. But a couple of basic guiding principles can help.
First off, make reasonable requests. This may seem obvious, but many lobbyists ask for significantly more than the government is committed to providing. Getting the clearest possible sense of the resources available for projects related to your issue can ensure your ask is appropriate. When relevant, look at past fund allocation by the government in question to get an idea of how much of the pie you can reasonably seek. If you’re asking an official to take action toward modifying proposed or established legislation, consider what they might be risking to do so. What can you do to assure them that the risk will pay off?
Identifying your most important ask can be a helpful first step. What is your client’s – or organization’s – single biggest priority? Having a focal point around which to build your case is more likely to result in a moderate – and memorable – appeal. Think about the private North American internet companies that fought to preserve net neutrality. In addition to adopting a strength-in-numbers mentality, these organizations made a strong and compelling ask (all the more so when it was presented as a solitary issue).
If your primary request is too big, you can structure smaller, contributory requests around it. This election, the CMA has asked federal parties to make “low-hanging fruit” commitments, such as moving to make the caregiver tax credit refundable. These are ideas that can be supported by any party, even the Conservatives (champions of fiscal prudence). Such actions can help build momentum behind your issue, even when government is not in a position to address it fully.
That said, if there’s no alignment between your issue and the goals of the government players you’re appealing to, you won’t gain traction. When it comes to health issues, the public will always care. The CMA reminded government that neglecting the sector could cause problems with the public down the line. They set up modest investment as the solution. Once the leaders were more receptive (and therefore more aware of healthcare issues), they were willing to make bigger commitments – including $1.8 billion for senior care from Thomas Mulcair.
The lesson is clear. Whenever possible, frame your ask as the key to a solution to a problem the government cares about. This is never more important than when the budgets are tight and expenditures are already largely accounted for.
After the ask
If your GR strategy is thorough and responsive, it should help you meet your objectives, whatever the election results. Of course, your message is likely to resonate most with one particular party. If this party comes into power, and you’re advocacy efforts have been successful, you’re in luck. Given the likelihood of a minority government, you may also achieve considerable influence if you win over the party that becomes the official opposition. Either way, you may want to be prepared to express your gratitude.
When the issues you raise receive support – and especially when they result in a positive, tangible result, such as a party-platform modification or proposed legislative change – it pays to say thank you. Do what you can to ensure positive public perception of the government action you’ve impacted, and government officials will be more likely to work with you in the future.
And if you don’t get the response you were hoping for? Taking the same (gracious) approach can set you apart from other GR practitioners. Because, when you get right down to it, politicians and bureaucrats are people, too. Whether they’re focused on the campaign trail, ongoing budgetary concerns, or the day-to-day running of a government department, those who are used to being lobbied will appreciate being appreciated.
Feature Image via StockMonkeys.com