Making A First Impression In Public Affairs

The initial contact with any stakeholder is critical and it can come in many different forms. However it happens, you need to prepare for making a good first impression. Otherwise, you risk failing to develop a trusted relationship with them.

The opportunity to make a first impression can come from a chance meeting or something that you look to arrange after having identified them as a key stakeholder.

The chance encounter means being able to explain who you are, your organisation, issue and proposed next steps all in the space of a minute or two. That is quite an art form, which needs to be practiced. The first step should always be to have an ‘elevator pitch’ ready to use. Nothing too technical. Something that captures the imagination and is clear and precise in its language. That is tailored as much as possible. An introduction that means you earn the right to follow-up.

You may, of course, have identified a stakeholder as being important and then try to engage with them in written form – email or letter. Alongside that will often be a briefing paper. I have blogged about  what makes a good briefing paper before but it is critical to understand what the stakeholder needs. Ministers will struggle to deal with anything longer than one side; MPs are often happy with two sides; Peers and officials maybe something a little longer (but not too much longer!). But this is only a rough guide. The more you understand the needs of the stakeholder, the better able you are to make such judgements.

A first impression in-person (or online) requires a different set of skills again. Consider:

  • Who should attend the meeting? This will depend on the aim of the meeting but also the type of information you are trying to convey. It should also reflect the seniority and position of the person you are meeting.
  • How to conduct the meeting – everything from who speaks first and who does the introduction through to the agenda.
  • What you want to convey – think carefully about what it is you want to get across to the stakeholder and how best to do that.
  • How best you can demonstrate your expertise – that could be facts and figures, it could be advice based on experience. A constituency angle is always good for elected politicians.
  • How to stand out from others – securing the attention of stakeholders, especially politicians, is a competitive space. You are not the only ones seeking to establish a relationship. So you need to be better at it than others.
  • How best to listen and react – always listen to any audience but especially politicians. Appreciate the need to be deferential and pay attention to what they want to know, not just what you want to say.
  • Asking for their views – what their view on how an issue may develop is and who else they think you should talk to can be really useful information and insight for your work. But it is also a clear demonstration that you value the relationship.
  • How best to respond and follow-up – a meeting should not be focused solely on what you want but how you can think about the interaction as stage one of a, hopefully, long term process.

The impression you make needs to be positive and lasting. That way, you can develop relationships with stakeholders.

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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