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Politicians will intervene – just learn to know when

Politicians have a habit of making negative comments about organisations or making policy changes that impact on them. These interventions inflict reputational and operational damage. But if you understand what causes politicians to intervene then you can avoid both of these outcomes.

Politicians are elected. This fundamental truth can often be lost by some when they are dealing with government. A government is meant, in their eyes, to act in the national interest and make decisions based on the needs of the country, socially and economically. That may be the case but a government still needs to be elected as do all the individual MPs. This means that they have a number of drivers on their behaviour and audiences they need to listen, communicate with and appeal to. At the current time of Brexit negotiations this can be further complicated by the need to communicate clearly with international markets so that the country’s economic position is secured.

If, however, we focus primarily on the domestic agenda then it is possible to learn where political intervention is most likely.

  1. Headlines – if an organisations finds itself in the middle of a crisis with all the media coverage that brings then politicians will feel the need to make comment. If the crisis keeps going then governments are ‘forced’ to take policy action to ensure that it never happens again. So there is a clear link between your own actions as an organisation and what politicians say and do. The flip side of this is that politicians like to reinforce good behaviours as well. So they will often try to get close to organisations or individuals who offer the prospect of associated reputation enhancement for them.
  2. Challenging authority – if you challenge the authority of a politician then they are likely to try to hit back. They are elected, you are not and that provides them with an authority and position that you lack. Similarly if you try to ignore them then they will hit back. Very often the actual tools that a politician has are very limited but they will try to inflict reputational damage as a way of making you fall into line. Just look at the chairs of Select Committees as a good example of this.
  3. Market ‘abuse’ – if you are seen to be abusing your market position in any way, regardless of sector, then you are fair game for political comment. It could be charities and fundraising, or a perfectly legal minimisation of taxes but if an organisation is not adhering to the very highest standards as the politicians would see it then damage will be coming your way.
  4. The public purse – those organisations who work with or deliver goods, services or products for the public sector are particularly liable to be on the receiving end of political intervention. Often regardless of whether the delivery is good or not, the level of public spending remains a concern for many especially in the media. In essence, the policy will be the last thing to be blamed for a failure or an increase in spending, it will be the delivery agents.
  5. Local matters – it is not just the national setting that is important. For individual constituency MPs, the most important thing is what happens in their area. This makes your relationship with your local MP of fundamental importance. How your operations work locally means everything to them. Get things wrong locally and they can soon be escalated to the national level – in terms of politics and the media.
Once you understand and recognise these triggers then it is possible to manage the risks and also to put appropriate communications processes and plans in place.None of this is to say that government and politicians should never be challenged for fear of the consequences. Instead, use your knowledge of the triggers to help build a campaign which minimises the chances of negative comment.

Many of the triggers are based on your own behaviours, reactions and approach. Politicians are not totally irrational and will only tend to ‘grandstand’ when they are sure of their arguments, position and the support (or potential support) of voters.

So understand the political drivers and look at yourselves as well.

Image courtesy of wikimedia

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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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