The Key to Public Affairs
What are the best ways to do outreach and build relationships with public officials in the Meadowlands—or in New Jersey? We asked the leading public affairs agencies in our region to comment on how they approach clients, establish trust and effectively communicate with officials.
While each agency has its own strategies, there are some common factors and universal suggestions that each described:
- Respect public figures and their office.
- Engage public officials directly. Operate with transparency.
- Use established channels to introduce clients and concepts.
- Make sure there is a public benefit or advantage to their constituents.
- Develop relationships before seeking favors.
- Listen to all perspectives and be willing to compromise.
- Support strategy with tools, such as social media, not the other way around.
There are many forums to engage public officials, such as public meetings, the press, social media, and established channels of their office. The guiding principles in any interaction are to treat all parties with respect and transparency, honor the established procedures, and keep their constituents in mind when seeking their advocacy on your client’s behalf.
“Engage with public officials directly,” says Bill Murray, vice president at MWW Communications, which operates in fifty states and at the federal level. “There is nothing like good, old-fashioned engagement, rolling up your sleeves, getting to know public officials personally. As the phrase goes, ‘All politics are local,’ there always has to be an understanding of what the issues are and how they hit home.”
“There are a myriad of circumstances that bring clients into contact with public officials—from regulatory processes to civic activity,” says Ron Simoncini, president of Axiom Communications. “The variables are so immense that you could never apply a set of rules to dealing with public officials, but a universal truth is that their focus is aligned with the interests of their constituency. That is the place to begin building a relationship: around how your business contributes to the community.”
Knowing the situation and climate where your clients are involved is important.
“In addition to communicating messages, public affairs practitioners are more engaged in policy, says Michael P. Turner, president, Burton Trent Public Affairs. “In my advocacy, I become deeply familiar with my clients’ businesses. That way I can provide my clients with more informed recommendations and can educate them about how their interests are affected by public policy.”
“Businesses as part of their marketing programs should try to develop substantial relationships with their local officials,” says Tim White, vice president, Beckerman PR, the state’s largest real estate public relations agency.
And timing is key.
“I often tell my clients don’t wait until you need a favor to be the first time to reach out. It is always good to develop relationships regardless. If one day you need a public official to advocate on your behalf or pick up an issue, it’s always better to have a relationship before the favor,” adds White.
The professionals suggest getting involved organically and in ways that support your cause, as well as through official channels to create relationships with influential members of the community and public officials. From council meetings to fundraisers, golf outings or community events, explore opportunities to establish your business and grow your network, and not just seek advocacy.
White suggests one-on-one networking at “low-dollar and free events” and participating in the Chamber as important ways to get to know people and build those ties.
However, when acting in a public capacity, go the official route. First impressions matter, as with all business contacts.
“Never disappoint an elected official. Your record of achieving what you said would happen creates the next environment for your proposal to be considered. Once that relationship of trust is established, and they know what you as an agent or company can do, you have an advantage,” says Simoncini.
“It’s all a part of reputation building, by establishing a relationship of what you can do for the constituents, which gives you a basis if you need support or approval later,” adds White.
“You can conduct public affairs from the desk only so far, you need to move and engage directly. You have to work with the grassroots organizations as well as know who the key influencers are. Every state has thought leaders or political structures that need to be understood in order to accomplish things,” advises Murray.
Despite its reputation and the way the media sometimes portray New Jersey, the public affairs pros complimented the state’s ability to build consensus, look for common ground, reach across the aisle and get things done.
The state’s smaller geographic size is an asset. Public relations can be conducted at a personal level since meetings are within driving distance. Also, in terms of networks, people know each other. They participate in the same events and organizations; the government affairs lobbyists know each other. There is a collaborative process in New Jersey.
“New Jersey might challenge many initiatives in the state. There will be people that disagree, but there is a process and an opportunity to engage public officials. Not everybody in public affairs takes that tactic. Some hit issues head on, but we think there are opportunities to build common ground and engage organizations to work together to get more done,” says Murray. “It’s not always harmonious, but often the elected officials and public affairs people find a way to make things work through conversation and establishing common ground.”
Transparency is key to working with public officials.
“Government relationships always need to be supported by public affairs, shine a light on a topic in order to illustrate that public official support for any initiative; backroom deals can’t be made,” adds Murray. “But in that process, don’t confuse strategy for tools. Have clear objectives first, then implement social media and third-party advocacy to support the initiatives. Direct engagement is critical.”
Social media is useful and has its place as a tool for immediate notification and mobilization but direct contact, especially with professional services, requires the personal touch. Use of social media is situational and should support the strategy.
“Try to know more that your adversaries. Establish yourself as one of, if not the authority on an issue. The best outcome is to be a ‘go to’ source for information on a particular policy matter,” says Turner.
A critical guideline is that the public official’s job needs to be respected no matter what impact is sought.
“It is very important that public affairs practitioners not get in the way of his or her own objective, to serve the client and put them front and center,” says Murray. “There’s always the person who’s going to try to sell you a specific tactic plan because it is what they do, as opposed to what the situation needs. It’s important to do what’s required, such as involve direct government relationships to reach objectives and use social media and third-party advocacy to support the strategy.”
“One mistake that clients make is to look at public officials as account executives to do their business. The official is there to create policy and administrate on behalf of their entire constituency. They want to help business so long as they can demonstrate they’ve created impacts that benefit residents,” says Simoncini. “And while you may support politicians personally, we advise against seeking access through campaign contributions to gain favor. It’s disrespectful to the office at a minimum, and it can get ugly from there. An initiative should stand on its merits to the constituency and the integrity of the roles must be maintained.”
“The best means to develop solid relationships is to share accurate information, be additive to the discussion and always be willing to listen to alternative points of view—then be willing to compromise if it makes sense,” adds Turner.
These guidelines might sound basic, but often in the rush to promote an idea or position, they get overlooked. When civility and procedure are honored, it is more effective at creating a network sincerely, organically and before it is needed. Then you can communicate with officials directly and honestly—and seek mutual goals.
Pamela Tully is a freelance writer, editor and marketing professional. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.