What to say to a politician

It is easy to get confused about what to say when faced with a politician.  The meeting may have taken an age to set-up and is an important 30 minutes.  But if not properly prepared for then the opportunity will be wasted.

There can, of course, be different types of interaction with a relevant politician. It may be a formal meeting but could just as easily be at a networking event or party conference fringe.  So what should your approach be?

It is importance think in terms of a ‘political narrative’ that encapsulates your approach. This is more than just the key messages of the campaign or issue.  It has to say something about you and your organisation as well.  In essence, your narrative needs to convey your reputation as well as your issue.

It is easier to communicate this narrative if the relationship is an existing one or you have worked on your political profile in advance.  Essentially, if they have heard of you in a positive way then that can kick-start the discussion.  If you are starting from a position of low knowledge or a poor reputation then your narrative needs to establish some initial common ground.  This can take-up valuable time.

It might easier to think in terms of having an ‘elevator pitch’ prepared for the chance encounter with a politician.  Certainly anyone in your organisation likely to come into contact with a political audience should be briefed on the agreed wording.

Basically, have something ready in advance so no-one gets caught out or misses a potentially value opportunity to engage because they don’t know what to say.

When it comes to having a little more time for a discussion then preparation is key.  Think about how to use the time you have wisely and assume you will only have around 30-40 minutes for a meeting.  That means having a rough timetable and agenda in your head so that you don’t get side-tracked.  There is nothing worse than having had the meeting but not having covered your main issue.

The approach needs to consider:

Short intro – having a short introduction to you, your organisation and your issue.  This needs to be pithy and concise.  No-one is interested in hearing the very interesting biography of a senior executive for instance…  The intro to the issue also needs to be designed to elicit questions from the politician.  You need to grab their interest and allow a space for discussion.

Have an aim in mind – consider the meeting in terms of what your overall strategy is.  Each element of engagement needs to fit together.  For instance, getting each person to do the same thing would rarely be right unless the aim was some form of collective action (an event, signing at EDM etc.).  But you can only work that out if you consider the strategy as a whole and see where all the pieces fit together.

Not just about what you want to say but what they may ask – always be prepared for the questions that will come your way.  There is one very easy way to lose potential support and that is to seem to be talking at someone rather than listening to them.  Especially when it comes to any political audience…

Avoid the jargon – a standing item for any engagement needs to be avoid all the usual terminology that no-one else understands.  Eyes glaze over and interest wanders…

Give them something to do – there should always be action points from any meeting and political engagement is no different.  A general briefing on an issue may be fine but what you should really be aiming for is some action on their part.  But why not make the suggestions about activity?  Many will ask what you want them to do so be prepared for that.

All of this really comes down to careful preparation and taking the steps needed not to get caught out. Dealing with politicians need not be a scary experience!

Photo via Good Free Photos

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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