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The key to success in public affairs? Find where power rests

Delivering success in public affairs means being able to identify where the power to make the decision rests. But that is only the starting point. You need to know not just ‘who’ but also ‘how’ as well. A failure to map these out will ultimately lead to failure.

Power in decision-making does not always sit with the person who sits at the top of the tree. You can pretty much guarantee that a direct approach to the Prime Minister on your issue will fail. Instead, you need to understand how any decision would be made. That means tracking the process of the decision as well as identifying the people involved as well. It’s critical to speak to the right people at the right time.

These people may be inside or outside of government, civil servants, the head of a regulatory body, the media etc. It may also be that the most important person changes over time. This is quite likely if the issue is quite complex and / or will has a potentially longer timescale.

You also need to avoid making the issue overly complex. The more complicated you make it and the more people you bring into the process, the more problematic a successful resolution will be.

Sometimes a wide-ranging approach may be needed. Some campaigns may need to draw in support from a number of sources and the strength of the issue may be that it cuts across government departments. Those issues are though more challenging to campaign on and they often take longer. But you still need to know who, at the end of the day, makes the decision. In such multi-faceted cases there may be multiple decision-makers.

Knowing who makes the decision means that you can map out the influences on that person as well. You can start to make some decisions about whether you need to work with other groups, the media, competitors etc.

As mentioned, knowing the decision-making process is critical. For instance, do you need to engage in a formal consultation? Is it completely off the radar at the moment so do you need to create the interest and momentum? If so, do you understand the pressure on the decision-makers to make your efforts effective? In other words, don’t just undertake activity for the sake of it, maintain a total focus on the aim of what you are trying to achieve.

Very often actual meetings can be useful. A discussion with the right people, for instance in the government department or in a relevant think tank, can provide really useful background and colour to the issue. You may think you know everything there is to know but are you aware of the wider environment? Perspective can easily be lost if you are looking at the issue from an internal perspective.

You should be prepared to try to create opportunties for engagement around the formal processes. You should not wait to be asked for a meeting, ask for one yourself. Government will not always make it easy for engagement to take place and you have to work to make the opportunities. This could mean following up on media coverage or being alive enough to recognise and then pursue opportunities in Parliament and with Parliamentarians.

Also, are you attending relevant policy or conference summits? Are you listening to opponents as well as supporters? Are you really learning from what they are saying? The case you make to decision-makers will be much more powerful if you have incorporated this breadth and depth of knowledge and understanding. Critically, you should recognise your weak spots and do something about them.

Generally, it is better to keep things as simple and straightforward as possible but be prepared to mix things up especially if you need to try and counter the position of others. Engaging with government can be a highly competitive business and you may well have to fight to get your voice heard with the right people.

Does your campaign consider these factors? If not, then it should do. The consequences could be disastrous otherwise.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Neil Lall

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Stuart is a public affairs and communications specialist with BDB Pitmans advising clients on all elements of their public affairs strategies including political and corporate communications and reputation management. His work also includes consultation and planning communications and he has advised on a number of high profile media relations and crisis communications programmes. Stuart is an honorary research fellow at the University of Aberdeen and is the author of several books including ‘New Activism and the Corporate Response‘ (heralded as a book that “every aspiring business leader should read” by MIS Asia), ‘Public Affairs in Practice’ and ‘The Dictionary of Labour Quotations‘. His most recently published book, ‘Public Affairs: A Global Perspective’ has been called ‘an absolute treasure-trove’ and is a recommended read by the Government Communication Service (GCS). Stuart regularly writes and lectures on a range of business and political issues and as well as blogging for BDB Pitmans he contributes to the Huffington Post and has written for the CBI, (former) UKTI, Total Politics and LabourList. He is also an adviser to the Entrepreneurs Network (TEN) and a regular speaker and chair at conferences. He has appeared on Sky News, BBC 5 Live, BBC World, the Today programme and on Ukrainian TV and has been a judge for the Public Affairs News, PR Week, Public Affairs and the European Public Affairs awards. Stuart is a CIPR trainer leading the 'Practical Public Affairs' course.

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