Originally published in Business Advisor. Click here to read the original.
It’s a typical afternoon in a typical work week in March 2017, when all of a sudden, popping up on your phone and computer are media stories on the Saskatchewan Government’s latest
provincial budget. What you thought would be a “ho-hum” typical government budget is suddenly the opposite.
The provincial budget of March 22, 2017, unveiled the highest deficit ever during the Saskatchewan Party government era. In just a week, PST was going up to 6%, and it was going to be applied to children’s clothing, restaurant meals, snack foods, insurance premiums, and construction services. Sectors such as post-secondary education, transportation, libraries, and healthcare were about to see a dramatic reduction in budgets. Seemingly no one had been spared.
Suddenly you realize your business will be affected by this budget. The Saskatchewan Government has turned its attention to your business, your sector. They want changes and those changes will affect you, directly.
You believe that attention is unwarranted, and it’s certainly unwanted. But it will have a negative impact on your business.
You have a vague recollection of meeting your MLA at a fundraising event last year, but it was just a brief introduction. You search, in vain, for that business card. You think your cousin worked on the campaign of the minister proposing these changes. Or did he work with the party that lost? Who can remember?
What To Do ?
Well, first of all, relax! Governments move slowly on many matters.
And get the facts. What you’ve heard about the matter affecting your business may be true but it may not be. Often the government sends its intentions up as trial balloons – they want to gauge how receptive people are to a policy change by sending out some initial notions of the change, not a full-scale immediate yanking of a policy in one direction or another. And in the case of Budget 2017, through intense lobbying by several sectors, some of the proposed tax changes were redressed.
Medium-sized and small businesses are almost always focused on the day-to-day running of their enterprise. Growth, profit, HR issues, marketing, and operations are what you do every day. You may have little knowledge of the players, processes, and operations of the government. Truth be told, you wish they’d leave you alone.
It’s never a good idea to define something by what it’s not, and that is particularly true of government relations or, if you prefer, public affairs.
It’s not the wheeling and dealing over boozy dinners and lunches depicted on House of Cards and The West Wing; that’s fiction.
Those who practise public affairs have elevated the profession to meet the rapid growth and complexity of government. This change has forced many companies to join associations whose main task is to advocate to government on behalf of industry; others have actually hired in-house personnel to ensure that the government is informed about a company’s activities.
So while it’s never a bad idea to establish a personal contact with your elected officials, it’s an even better idea to do so when you don’t need anything from them. Go have a coffee and tell them about your business. Establish a personal relationship.
Successful government relations are, in other words, a dedicated process designed to communicate with government about the fundamentals of a company’s business. Those fundamentals are basic, but often overlooked. Governments are not looking to find out about you; it’s your job to tell them.
Governments will welcome hearing about, and in fact are anxious to know, the number of jobs a company is providing, its plans for future growth, and importantly for governments of all political persuasions, how you are effecting positive change for disadvantaged populations.
If you want to see if your company is aligned with government priorities, a quick scan of the governing party’s website and its most recent speeches from the throne – where the broad-stroke priorities of a government are foretold – will tell you if you’re on the same page. If you are, tell them.
If all that sounds like dentistry without anesthesia, be assured that help is out there!
Professional public affairs counsel is a relatively new profession. In Canada, it really began to get its legs in the late 1980s when the Progressive Conservatives, under Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, were in power.
Big issues were being debated at the time that were concerning to Canadians and Canadian business. Free trade (again a major issue) and constitutional change, with the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords being hotly debated, were profoundly important to all Canadians.
Canadian business wanted to have much better and, importantly, more current sightlines into the day-to-day machinations of the federal government.
Government relations firms became key partners in a company’s competitive arsenal as the strategic advice provided was often critical to business planning and future success.
Demands for even better information and data began to emerge and public affairs firms began to integrate primary research into their offerings. Rather than guessing at their audience’s attitudes, awareness levels, and intentions, clients wanted much greater certainty prior to embarking on expensive, and often scattershot, communications and public affairs outreach.
To be a trusted advisor to Canada’s leaders today, you must be able to devise and execute strategies that allow your clients to understand and manage their external environment in such a way that the actors in that space – interest groups, customers, employees, communities, voters, the media, as well as government – look at your clients’ interests as the same as their own, and when necessary, to be able to mobilize those stakeholders in aid of those interests.
Your government relations initiatives have achieved their objective when governments seek you out first before they embark on substantive policy change affecting your industry.
Strategic government relations can help you get to where you need to be in shaping your public affairs program. Professional government relations provides a complete set of tools to help move governments of all political stripes into creating better public policy, policy that is grounded in substantiated fact, through trusted and established relationships with key decisionmakers in Ottawa and Regina.
Your cousin may be a very clever fellow, but you may be better off with a professional government relations strategy.