Why a government relations program should form part of every organisation’s communications arsenal


By Benjamin Haslem

(The following post is adapted from a webinar delivered to members of the Public Relations Institute of Australia [PRIA], by our Co-CEO Benjamin Haslem)

Government is a major stakeholder, with the potential to impact you or your operations – both negatively or positively.

And if ever the time comes when you need the government’s assistance, it’s far more likely you will get an audience, let alone an outcome, if they know you.

For that reason, it is necessary to develop good long-term relationships with key decision makers and to establish contact early and maintain it regularly, not merely pressing government at times of need. 

The bottom line is you need to invest in building relationships. 

But let’s first define what we mean by Government.

Government can be divided into two broad groups.

he first is the political arm. The politicians – the Government, Opposition, minor parties and independents (who in Canberra currently carry a lot of weight) and politicians’ advisers, known as staffers.

The second is what we broadly refer to as the Bureaucracy – Government departments, agencies, regulators, government-owned enterprises.

Both these groups operate across all levels of government – Federal, State and to a much smaller extent, local government.

So why communicate with them?

s I said, they are a major stakeholder and like all stakeholders your relationships with them can affect business and other operational outcomes. That’s because what governments do can have a direct or indirect impact on what you do or what you can’t do.

They do this through policy; legislation; funding decisions; awarding contracts, even just through public pronouncements about what they think they should be doing.

It can be done by an Opposition, minor parties or independents agitating for action – like a banking royal commission.

What governments say or do has an impact on public opinion and behaviour. Either directly, by changing laws that force behavioural change – think NSW lock-out laws – or by shaping attitudes, albeit gradually. Just ask the Life Insurance industry. And of course, governments can also be your customers.

No Government makes a decision in isolation. Stakeholders, representing a range of interest groups in the community, always play an important role in what governments do. So should you.

Governments expect companies, industry associations, NGO’s, charities and individuals to advocate their positions. It helps them. It gives them a keener understanding of what voters want. It also provides them with ideas.They like collaboration.

However, they prefer positions to be put in a responsible and productive way. The search for such collaboration is always the starting point for effective government relations. 

But I hear you say: my company is a member of their industry association, which represents their interests in Canberra or their local State capital. This may be true. But these groups also represent the interests of all your competitors. And they can only speak broadly about issues that affect a significant proportion of their base.

As I said before – government relations activity isn’t just about grizzling to government about an issue you want fixed. It’s about relationship building and collaboration. And one way of doing that is offering the government something your competitors may not be.

You can’t rely on an industry association to have all your best interests at heart. That’s not a criticism of industry associations – it’s just reality. They should represent everyone. And if politicians are meeting industry associations, they’re not meeting you. They may know your brand and what others are saying about you but there’s no meaningful relationship.

Another response you may have is: we are small. We can’t afford to expend resources on flying to Canberra or even travelling into the CBD to meet politicians. You don’t need huge resources to establish a simple but very effective relationship with government.

If you’re an SME you can develop a relationship with your local member of parliament, even if they’re not in government. Backbenchers can be a very effective conduit to Ministers. Get to know them. Invite them to a function at your business. If you know they’re attending a function in your town or suburb go along and say hello. Send them newsletters and other marketing collateral, with a covering letter.

So if ever the need arises to ask the government for help, you will have a friend at court.

So what are the components of successful government relations?

It is necessary to develop good long-term relationships with key decision makers and to establish contact early and maintain it regularly, not merely pressing government at times of need. The bottom line is to invest in building relationships. A strong and professional relationship requires:

  • the investment of time; and
  • the development of mutual trust and respect.   

It also requires a clear strategic direction. Like all communications strategies, Government relations must be:

  • planned, 
  • have clear objectives and 
  • defined lines of responsibility.

Relationships can operate formally or informally depending on circumstances.  They should always be conducted in a straightforward, respectful, and inclusive way. Stick to their agenda; keep them informed; don’t just use them when needs be.

All proposals or asks need to be:

  • well-evidenced, 
  • politically feasible; and 
  • generally aligned with decision-makers’ goals (or, if they cannot be, understanding of those goals.)  

Align your advocacy with the expectations of policy makers and legislators. This is congruent with building good relationships and ultimate success. You need to ensure government is aware of your contribution to community, state and nation.

Political decision-making is easier if organisations have a demonstrable affiliation with the community and place high value on integrity in dealing with stakeholders.

Organisations must demonstrate some alignment with the requirements of government. An organisation also needs to be clear about its role in society and sensitive to the national interest. 

They need to be aware of the constraints on government (do they control the upper house?), understand policy design and formulation (how many ministers are involved, is there an influential backbench committee; what do the bureaucrats think?) and be familiar with the broader political environment (can the government sell this to the voters; are there members of the government’s political party who will oppose you?). 

Balance refers to not being perceived as an organisation that views everything through the prism of money, including avoiding the perception of being grasping, extortionate or self-serving. For the most part, public policy is mainly about sensible policy and only secondarily about money. 

Ethical behaviour includes transparency and sensitivity to such matters as conflict of interest, litigiousness and aggressive and unethical corporate behaviour.

So what are the components of dysfunctional government relations? What needs to be avoided?

Decision-makers and policy makers are most easily offended by industries and organisation that are perceived as:

  • aggressive; 
  • manipulative; 
  • partisan;
  • unethical; 
  • self-interested; and
  • poor communicators. 

Aggression includes tactics that are confrontational, irritating, bullying, threatening, demanding, blindsiding, blackmailing or legalistic. Failure to understand the complexities and nuances of government decision-making is also seen as a major failing.

Organisations are also unfavoured if they are seen to be:

  • opportunistic; 
  • dissembling; 
  • involved only when they want something; or 
  • manipulating popular sentiment to force the government’s hand (i.e. running off to the media). 

rganisations that seek ‘special treatment’ rather than relying on the strength of their case are also disliked. 

Other features of dysfunctional relationships include: Failing to consult; being inflexible, negative and unwilling to understand government policy and direction.

Ethical issues (being dishonest in your advocacy, covert deals) are rejected as is overt self-interest - focusing exclusively on the organisation’s own interests and failing to consider mutual or social outcomes.

Eleven-steps to good government relations

Wells Haslem Mayhew has an 11-step guide to successful engagement with government. This was built upon numerous interviews over several years with senior Government and Opposition MPs and Senators, senior political staffers and political journalists about dealing with Government. They told us what works.

This 11-step guide is also based on our own experience helping clients talk to governments over the past 25 years.

But the most important element in any government relations exercise is that if you want the government to do something you need to understand that a good case beats everything. 

You can read about the 11 steps HERE.