Knowing who to speak to in government when things go wrong means investing in public affairs before the crisis happens. It is the reality that many organisations choose not to make that decision.
The immediate benefits of public affairs may not always be obvious but it is worth the investment.
Listening to the CEO of Lush, Mark Constantine, interviewed on the Today programme brought home the benefits of investing in public affairs. Put simply, during the new Covid-19 lockdown they didn’t know who to talk to in government about trying to keep their stores open. As a consequence, they were working with one of the trade bodies of which they are members.
Any organisation should always have their own connections into government that they can call upon. These connections may be with civil servants, Ministers or, very often, through constituency MPs. The role that a constituency MP plays can be sadly overlooked but a good MP will always offer to help when a challenge with government arises.
It is always quicker and easier if that relationship already exists otherwise they will be a necessary delay as initial contact is made, a relationship established, the issues explained etc. There will be none of those potential delays if you already engage with them on a regular basis.
The MP may be able to help reach out to the highest levels of government or undertake useful activity in Parliament that could help to raise awareness and sort the matter.
That should not prevent you from establishing other relationships as well, especially with those who adopt similar positions.
In the case of Lush, there is nothing wrong with working with a trade or representative body, but they will be one of a possibly large number of organisations trying to call on their time. Those organisations may also have a range of different issues they want to talk to government about. It will be more effective if each organisation had their own connections which could be utilised. As a major employer and manufacturer, they will have a good story to tell government but any organisation can find ways to engage.
There could be other issues in future that any organisation needs to deal with, not least Brexit and its consequences. Then add in a range of other matters than come up during normal day-to-day operations across employment, supply chain, the environment and then sprinkle in the occasional crisis and you can start to see why an organisation’s own channels can be critical in ensuring input and getting your side of the story across to prevent knee-jerk policy reaction or public comment.
It could also be that having to rely on a high profile media appearance to make the case risks alienating the Government. They would always prefer issues to be sorted behind closed doors rather than the dirty linen being aired in public. Whether Lush or the Government came out of the interview particularly well is a matter for debate.
So any organisation should think about a checklist of activities:
- Audit existing contacts – who you know across government and what positions they hold
- Map across current and potential future issues and political risks against this audited list
- Consider your approach and undertake engagement to ‘fill in the blanks’, the ‘missing’ contacts
- Keep records of the your outreach and new contacts
- Keep contacts regularly updated and engaged
If you do this then when you need help, it will be more readily available. These lessons apply not just to those selling soap with a footprint across communities but smaller organisations as well. Everyone can, and should, think about their engagement in advance of needing friends.