The Biggest Mistake Companies Make When Planning a Government Affairs Strategy

Drew Piers
Drew Piers
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The Biggest Mistake Companies Make When Planning a Government Affairs Strategy

When it comes to lawmaking, if you don’t have a seat at the table, then you’re on the menu.

Public policy and regulation can have a massive impact on your business. All across your organizational chart to your bottom line, what happens in city halls and state capitals can often make you or break you.

With so much at risk, it amazes us when some companies decide to plan their government affairs strategies without a key component: a communication firm with a seasoned public affairs practice.

This is a massive mistake. Hiring a communication firm with a seasoned public affairs practice enhances your efforts to communicate about public policy and how it may impact your business.

Of course, this raises the question: What should you look for when hiring a communication firm? Especially if you already have a lobbying team working on your behalf.  

If you go in blind, there’s a good chance you’ll make costly mistakes that can burden your business for years. Spare yourself those painful mistakes.

When it comes to government relations, here are 5 things you should look for when hiring a communication firm.

Intimate Knowledge Of The Process and Players

It’s absolutely crucial to have a communication team on your side who has deep knowledge of the intricate process of how laws are made in your state and who understands the players involved in the process. If your firm truly knows “the process” side of lawmakers, you can accomplish huge outcomes.

The flip side is also true. If you think you can hire any marketing firm or handle your own communications, instead of a firm that actually has experience in the public affairs/legislative arena, it’s like bringing a knife to a gunfight.

You will be at a disadvantage from the beginning. That’s a guaranteed recipe for disaster.

If you believe the legislative process begins when the gavel goes down to start a legislative session, you are mistaken. In Florida, where lawmakers technically serve on a  “part-time” basis, the business of the Legislature can go on throughout the year — especially when battles flare up on the local level.

Even without “special sessions,” called when a specific issue needs immediate attention, there are crucial interim meetings happening in the run up to a new legislative session. Lawmakers are considering and filing new bills. It’s during those times that your firm should be educating people and communicating with people.

If your firm tries to start communicating your issue at the beginning of a legislative session, it’s like a quarterback staying in the locker room until the third quarter of a championship contest. A good part of the game has already been played, and you haven’t been on the field.

It would be very difficult for your business to succeed in a country where you didn’t understand the rules. Yet, so often, without understanding the rules and the players, businesses think they can make progress in the Capitol simply because the facts are on their side.

That’s a mistake you can’t afford to make.

This is why a communications firm is a key part of your team. It is critical to have the facts on your side.

But presentation counts. You also must present the facts in a way that is easy to understand — no jargon and no acronyms. Keep your story simple and keep it consistent.

Adaptable and Nimble

You need to have a plan before you head into a public affairs challenge. But, like former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson brilliantly said, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

The sands of government process can quickly shift under your feet. Unexpected twists and turns are common. Opinions can quickly change direction. People can change their minds. Information not favorable to your position can come out. This can happen at any moment in our always-connected social media era.

This means that the firm you hire must be able to pivot on a dime, adjust its approach, immediately address threats and tweak messaging accordingly.  

If your firm can’t confidently handle change, they can’t play and win in “the process.”

Your team must be able to change the gameplan at a minute’s notice or you will need to choose a different firm.

Brilliant Framers

It’s not enough to simply talk about a political issue. The issue must be framed so that lawmakers and the public at large understand what’s really at stake. The best communication firms can strategically frame an issue so that the true impact is felt, both by voters and by lawmakers.

The firm you hire should be able to take complex political issues and brilliantly frame them in ways that move hearts and minds. The firm should understand what truly matters to your target audience and then be able to frame your issue so that it connects with your target audience.

Masters of Messaging

You have a message that must be heard, and the firm you hire should be able to deliver your message in a way that is clear, compelling, and cuts through the noise.

They should understand your target audience inside and out, and should be able to creatively speak in a way that truly resonates with your ultimate target audience.

In the case of passing legislation, it must be a compelling argument to carry a majority in every committee that considers the issue. It must pass both chambers of the Legislature and be signed by the governor.

Every day, legislators have their attention pulled in a thousand different directions by a thousand different messages. Your firm should be able to craft a message that is easy to understand and simple to act upon.

They should also know how to get your message heard by those inside the legislative process. They should know which mediums are most effective for communicating with various parties and individuals. They should be able to cut through the noise.

The firm you hire should have a knowledge of how key members of the Legislature receive their news and information. They should know what particular programming key members enjoy — if they watch Sportscenter every night or never miss an episode of Scandal. If you’re privy to that information, you can target advertising appropriately.

They should know which social networks lawmakers are using personally and which accounts are run by their aides — and should be able to craft a message that stands out on those sites.

No matter what the medium, your firm should be able to craft a clear and compelling message that perfectly fits the medium and deeply connects with your target audience.

Digital Experts

Communication has become so much more than newspapers, televisions, and radios. The explosion of social media means that important conversations are happening at speeds unheard of back in the days when you had to wait for a full 24-hour news cycle.

Opinions are literally being shared while important events are unfolding. You must be ready to shape the story in real time as it is happening.

Additionally, many people don’t consume news and information from traditional sources. They get their news from social media networks.

Video ads that would never be viewed by some on television have a much higher chance of being seen on social networks like Facebook and Instagram.

This means, at least, two things. First, the firm you hire should understand how to track important conversations happening on social media. They should know who matters, why they matter, and what they’re saying.

Second, the firm you hire should know the rules of communicating across social networks. Social media communication is very different from other mediums, and the firm you hire should have a firm grasp of the nuances required for effective social media communication.

Conclusion

Make sure the firm you hire to assist your government relations team knows its way around the legislative process.

Make sure they know how to create a message that is compelling, clear and cuts through the clatter and that they know the right channels to use in communicating to target audiences.

And make sure they know how to successfully navigate social/digital media.

Don’t play fast and loose when it comes to hiring a communication firm for your critical public affairs work. You can’t afford to make mistakes when it comes to navigating the legislative process.

The passing or killing of policy can literally be the difference between massive success and your business dying a slow, painful death.

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