More ‘And’ and Less ‘But’

Successful public affairs is about offering solutions rather than just presenting insolvable problems. That means we must find ways of keeping the conversations going. That means using more ‘ands’ and less ‘buts’.

To develop a relationship with a stakeholder requires time and effort and it also requires a constructive approach. Pressure can be applied internally or from clients to point out that a problem exists. Highlighting it is not the problem – nothing ever works perfectly. The ‘and’ is required to maintain the relationship and keep the discussions on a positive basis. There is no point simply taking a problem to any audience, let alone politicians or civil servants, and expect them to magic up an answer. Solutions need to be given to them to consider.

Even if they like the idea then they are bound to want to put their own stamp on it so no-one should feel too precious about their ideas.

But what makes an effective solution aside from solving the problem itself?

1) Policy timing – the solution needs to be deliverable in line with policy timescales. The chances of delivering primary legislation are, for instance, fraught with difficulty and the chances of getting your issue included is remote. The fight for primary legislation will also take a long time and that might not work for the issue.

2) Audience needs – the solution must think about what the audience can achieve as well. What can they realistically do? Can they make an active contribution? Are we asking them to do something that is within their power at that time? If not, then we are not being serious and are risking the relationship as well.

3) Costs – everyone appreciates the challenge of an issue that requires finance, so the preference must be avoid seeking extra government funding. That may though be required. In which case the fundamentals of why there are no other options, what the possible role of outside bodies including the private sector could be etc need to be addressed. You need to understand exactly what the position of the Treasury will be, what the questions they ask will be and be able to respond effectively.

4) Consistency – once put forward, you must stick by the solution. If it can be too easily dismissed, then a follow-up option will not be taken as seriously. You must stick by the solution and be able to argue for it over time.

5) No further impacts – we often complain about the unintended consequences of government measures so a suggested solution similarly should not cause issues. A solution is not a solution if it solves one problem only to create another. That could be for you or others.

6) Political benefits – ideally the solution needs to offer some sort of political benefit to those delivering it – government or opposition. That could result in good media coverage, the direct potential for improving their electoral prospects or it could form part of an overall image of good governing.

When engaging we need to think about abolishing the word ‘but’ because it does not lead us to offering a workable, deliverable, politically astute solution. A ‘but’ is negative. We need more ‘ands’ to pursue a positive line and offer the solution.

That will help positive engagement.

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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