Relationships of trust with politicians, as with other stakeholders, take time to build and develop. Many are worried about doing or saying the wrong thing with a politician and especially about being too political. But take some straightforward steps and the trust will build.
I was recently lucky enough to be asked by Signal AI to deliver a webinar on the role of politicians in crisis communications. It covered the issue of building trust and you can watch the webinar for free here. For those without the time to watch then here are just a few of the points I raised.
Trust always takes time and effort to build. So a political relationship needs to be cultivated over time and never taken for granted. A first meeting will always be useful in learning more about a politician’s concerns and motivations but that is only ever the starting point.
A public affairs team should then look to develop those initial discussions into something more ‘conversational’ over a longer period of time. By ‘conversational’, I do not necessarily mean informal, although that could apply; instead it is more about allowing the politician to ask questions, make requests which you can then deliver on. In turn, and over time, you can then ask questions and make suggestions to them.
So here are some hints and tips on how you can achieve that:
- Communicate clearly and at regular intervals – keep in contact and don’t let the relationships go cold;
- Answer questions – when a politician asks a question you must be in a position to be able to answer it or, at the very least, help them connect with someone who can. It is also worth thinking ahead and trying to predict their questions as well. Not least this shows you are on top of the issue but also means that you can see where the conversation may go and start to guide it;
- Be open to suggestions and possible changes – the relationship should be about dialogue and that means listening. So don’t just think about explaining your position but also reflect on the points they may raise. This can be particularly crucial if the engagement is taking place during any period of ‘evidence gathering’;
- If change is not possible, then explain – not every suggestion a politician has is sensible but that does not mean it should be ignored. Instead, take the time to respond and explain;
- Develop a programme that builds over time – if you plunge headlong into a mass programme of engagement then it is difficult to spend the time that each relationship needs. Instead, sometimes for measurement purposes, it becomes a race to collect names. It may be better to spend time with a fewer number but ensuring that the relationship really works. Think across your internal programmes as well to check for crossover between contacts. Not being aware of who is doing what can lead to embarrassment or worse!;
- The media – going against a politician or a party consistently in the media soon sours a relationship as does going to the media too early during a campaign;
- As much as is possible see the politicians as individuals, rather than a blob – they don’t all think the same or believe the same things. Under the current circumstances, this seems more obvious than ever…
- It’s not just about the individuals – but consider how you can work with their teams, advisers, office staff etc. can all help as well.
Especially for in-house teams, as much as possible, whatever relationships are developed should also be ‘owned’ by the organisation, not just the individual team members involved. There might be tendency for team members to develop their own contacts and networks but the relationships need to last beyond their own time.
You never know what may happen in the future with political changes and contacts can be ‘better placed’ or more influential in the future. So internally, this may means everything from ensuring good record keeping through to proper hand-overs should the team member leave.
Fundamentally, if you want the relationships then invest the time and effort.