Politics are crucial to any organisation. Some recognise the impact that governments can have, others choose to wait until an issue arises. A good leader needs to help manage political risk. The dangers of not doing so can be catastrophic.
Politicians are not completely irrational. They make judgements and issue comments on the basis of their understanding of an issue or organisation. If that is lacking, then we should blame ourselves for not communicating effectively.
Why take political engagement seriously?
But why are political audiences so important? They can change laws, regulations, levy taxes, issue new guidance. Their actions can have operational impacts as well as being able to damage reputations through their words and actions. Politics, the media, and stakeholders all have an impact on each other, which can either boost or harm an organization's reputation. This all means that political engagement is part of risk management and needs the attention of leaders.
Political engagement is useful as an early warning system. It provides an organisation’s ‘eyes and ears’ to spot opportunities for useful engagement and see off potential negative impacts.
There are organisational questions to pose about where in an organisation responsibility for political engagement sits. Sometimes this responsibility falls under a broader communications or external affairs department. It may even come under the remit of the General Counsel, often for those operating in a heavily regulated environment. Other bodies have little or no in-house capacity and instead rely on an outsourced operation.
Organisations will devise a model that works best for them, often based on resource allocation impacted by the decisions made by leaders.
Political engagement may seem intimidating, but it's a critical skill for leaders to master. Let's explore some best practices to help you get started:
- Develop connections – networks are just as important across politics, the civil service, Parliament, government advisers, Mayors and others as they are across any industry. Networks always provide useful insight and ways of trying to secure influence.
- Pro-active engagement – work to engage with policy-making so that your voice is heard throughout the process. Waiting to be asked for your input and ideas means failing to grasp opportunities.
- Build alliances – think about those who might work with you but also think about how you can best reassure those who might work against you. Always better if politicians receive a united front.
- Assume deference – politicians often expect to have senior level engagement and they want to be listened and responded to as well. That can sometimes cause frustration but never let it show.
- Drop the jargon – always speak human to political and public policy audiences, not management.
- Stick to the strategy – an organisation should have a political engagement strategy and it is wise to stick to it rather than simply going on instinct. Or, at the very least, discuss your potential actions with the relevant team. That also helps being over-demanding of political audiences.
- Allow others to help – there will be many competing pressures on a leaders’ time so use the resources around you to do the political follow-up, keep track of promises made and to keep focused on the outcomes that could require longer term attention. Relationships can be soured if attention is lost.
Leaders need to give political engagement the consideration it requires. The risks of not doing so could have serious impacts on an organisation to say nothing of the personal reputation damage.
Voices from our community: Dr Stuart Thomson Chart.PR is a political communications and public affairs consultant, and winner of Current Affairs Online Influencer of the Year 2020.