Executing a good government relations strategy Communitech January 5, 2013 Communitech by Avvey Peters Our friends at the Greater KW Chamber asked me to pen a few thoughts on what makes a good government relations strategy for their July issue of The Advocate. After much musing about how to “de-mystify” good GR, here’s the end result. Not much mystery to it, as it happens, but a worthy exercise for growing your tech company. * * * Companies don’t always understand why they should think about government relations. The simple reason is that government is a significant player in your industry, whether you realize it or not. Governments invest in communities and industries. They create policies that help business and support workers. But they’re not perfect. So they need business to tell them what it needs and what it doesn’t. That’s why you engage in government relations. About 10 years ago, I spent a great deal of time trying to learn to do government relations. I read everything I could find on the subject; attended workshops and conferences; and watched how successful GR professionals did their jobs. The conclusion I’ve come to is that there’s no magic to good government relations. But I do know that successful GR professionals are really good at three things: understanding the landscape, effective communications, and building relationships. These are essentially the same skills possessed by someone who’s good at sales, or fundraising, or public relations. The difference is how the pieces come together. So here are some not-so-secret ingredients to building a successful GR program. For many companies and organizations, simply focusing on these fundamentals will make a big difference in building a constructive relationship with government – at the local, provincial, and federal levels. UNDERSTANDING THE LANDSCAPE Read the tea leaves No matter how sound your case, how good your argument, or how compelling your data – if your request of government fails to acknowledge political reality or align with the government’s objectives, you will fail. For example: if a federal program announces that it has $100M to support projects across the country, and your community is asking for $75M to support a single, local initiative, then it’s an unrealistic request given the rest of the landscape. If your priority project aligns at least partially with the priorities of government, your likelihood of success increases. Use the buddy system Communitech has been part of a number of successful government relations initiatives over the last year. But we didn’t achieve success alone. Through a coalition of like-minded partners we worked with the federal government to find a solution to the Section 116 issue; which was preventing Canadian tech companies from being able to raise enough capital to succeed. With our partners at the University of Waterloo Stratford Campus, we raised government and industry support to establish the Canadian Digital Media Network – connecting Canada’s clusters of digital media activity to create more jobs and more companies for the digital economy. On its own, one organization doesn’t always have the network, the resources, nor the capability to achieve significant policy change. While it takes time and effort to manage a coalition of partners working toward a common goal, the results are usually worthwhile. COMMUNICATIONS Prioritize Most organizations fail to decide on a single priority with which to ask government’s help. If you go to government with a laundry list of things to fund or fix, then you’re not particularly effective at delivering your message. Spend some time deciding what one thing will make the biggest difference to your company, your charity, or your industry, and work on that. Keeping your priorities in focus will make it easier for you to communicate with government. And it will ensure that government hears what you’re asking for. Make a clear ask Once you’ve decided on your priorities, then make sure your request of government is clear and concise. Save the weighty research reports, studies and surveys as back-up material. Produce them upon request. But when you go into a meeting with a government official, make a straightforward ask. And reinforce it: leave behind one piece of paper that reminds them of the ask. Follow up your meeting with a letter or an email that reiterates the ask. And be consistent and repetitious with your ask as you try to build support for an idea or a cause. Clear, consistent messaging will help to ensure you’re heard. RELATIONSHIP BUILDING Understand your audience The requests of government that fall on deaf ears tend to be those that haven’t taken the audience into consideration. First off, make sure you’re asking the right level of government for help. The Mayor can’t change immigration policy. Likewise, the federal government can’t ensure your street is plowed after a storm. Take some time to talk to government – both elected officials and staff members – to find out what’s important to them. Generally speaking, governments are more risk averse than some of the other organizations you’ll deal with. Taxpayers tend to appreciate that caution. But that means you need to temper your asks with the notion of risk tolerance in mind. Patience, persistence, perseverance Companies often complain that governments aren’t responsive. To them, I say: “adjust your expectations.” Governments are large organizations. By definition, that makes them less nimble in their ability to respond to last-minute requests or to change direction quickly. And because they’re large organizations, there are lots of individual people involved in making decisions. Be patient. Understand that you’re going to have to knock on more than one door, and have more than one conversation before your idea gains traction. If you can find someone within government to champion your cause, so much the better. Be generous US industrialist Henry Kaiser once said: “When your work speaks for itself, don’t interrupt.” Credit and praise are the most valuable things you can give government in exchange for it doing something you’ve asked. Even if a brilliant policy idea was yours initially, stand back and let government take the bow for following through. Governments are asked to do things all the time. How many people or organizations follow through and say thank you? Be generous with the credit for good ideas. Shout your praise from the rooftops. And voice your criticism behind closed doors. Doing so will make you a trusted partner. If you’re unhappy with a decision government has made, you can express that dissatisfaction –– just don’t do it through a news release. Public criticism makes government more cautious about dealing with your organization, and leaves them little room to manoeuvre to respond to your request if circumstances change. Public criticism will strain your relationships with individual bureaucrats or elected officials. And you’ll find it more difficult to get your next project underway. Work hard, and be nice to people I recently attended a great event hosted by Capacity Waterloo Region as part of its Agents of Change series. The keynote speaker was Jon Dellandrea – Canada’s most successful fundraiser, bar none. During his talk, Dellandrea said the secret to successful fundraising was to “work hard and be nice to people.” The same holds for government relations. Good GR isn’t about partisan politics. It’s about building relationships with multiple levels of government, multiple political parties, staffers and members of the bureaucracy. Effective GR is about understanding the landscape, communicating effectively, and building sound relationships. There’s little magic in it. But if you work hard, and you’re nice to people, your GR efforts will pay off. And if you need help getting started, call us at Communitech.