There can often be a focus on simply expanding networks but such a numbers game misses the benefits of a good network – one of which is speed and in public affairs that can really help.
The fundamentals of public affairs should always sit at the heart of any development and expansion of your network. Knowing which audiences are relevant to the public policies you are focused on and thinking about engaging them at the right time. That engagement needs to be relevant and focused but you also need to come armed with solutions and ideas.
Not just numbers
In that sense, the initial focus should always be on the quality of the network that you are trying to develop. That is a long way away from simply building your number of contacts. Such a numbers game rarely helps to develop a responsive network with meaningful relationships.
Responsiveness in public affairs terms could mean that a contact comes to you for information or is prepared to ask for your involvement in a policy drive they are leading. They may have some constituency activity in which you could be involved.
But it also means that you can go to them with ideas for questions, that they may be open to a briefing before debates, etc.
Such relationships of trust take an investment of both time and effort and, I think, are more difficult to establish over Zoom. This has certainly been one of the challenges of the Covid lockdowns.
However, we should not ignore the importance of the speed of the network either. Sometimes you need a network that can help you to move quickly.
Just think of a couple of scenarios:
- A crisis of your own making that starts making waves on social media and threats to go wider;
- The actions of a ‘competitor’ (as that can really be in any sector) threats to drag everyone down;
- You are aware of a forthcoming issues that may bring damage with it but one that, with the right actions, could be avoided;
- A potential opportunity, possibly commercial, that can only be grasped if you move quickly;
- Ill-informed comment by a stakeholder or politician that threatens your reputation.
Under such circumstances, ideally you will have contacts in your network that you can deploy quickly to help deal with those types of situations.
To be able to do that means having relationships of trust but also the right lines in – so everything from the right contact details, knowing those in their offices through to the best way to communicate with them at short notice (not always their office email address).
If they can move quickly then they may be able to assist with comment, connections or communications. You may just need their help acting as a conduit to get information to the right people. That could be enough.
Networks are a critical aspect of public affairs but they need to have depth and quality. Knowing loads of people could have some benefits in making wider connections. But take the time to ask yourself whether if, under pressure, your network can help you move at speed.
If not then it is not an effective network.