UK: Bad Lobbying: Top Five Reasons Why Public Affairs Campaigns Fail

Last Updated: 25 February 2013
Article by Stuart Thomson

All too often ineffective public affairs campaigns suffer from similar faults. If campaigns do not have the right architecture, designed from the very outset, then a lot of time, effort and resources can be wasted.

Considering some key structural issues right at the start means that some of the problems can be avoided. A short 'audit' before campaigning gets underway would be welcome because it would help stop some of the obvious mistakes from being made. It will not guarantee success but at least, if challenged, it can be shown that you were doing the right things.

Some of the most common faults are:

  1. Failure to provide a workable solution – this is cardinal sin number one. It remains the case that many organisations do not consider it their responsibility to come up with a solution to the problem they have. Under those circumstances, it is not clear whose responsibility it actually is. If the organisation cannot find a solution then how will anyone else? Also, if you are working with officials on the issue then understand that they will be looking for help and support, not a series of meetings with organisations who want to have the opportunity to get some issues off their chests.

    A workable solution can take many forms from legislation through to changes in guidance. However, the key phrase is 'workable' - be careful not to ask for the moon on a stick. If it is not within the power or gift of the stakeholders you hope can implement it then it is not workable.
  2. Wrong people – government is much more open than it has ever been before, locally and nationally. A lack of information is no longer the problem, rather working through what is available and prioritising can be. Part of the openness relates to the names of people and organisations you may need to work with, influence, or face opposition from. But are they all relevant and do they wield power or influence? If is too easy to think that you are dealing with the right people but you are instead heading off down a dead end, wasting time speaking to people that whilst relevant, are not in a position to really assist the campaign.
  3. Wrong time – working with Parliament and government can be daunting. For Westminster the policy timetable can often be quite unclear, especially when a policy is in its early stages of development. It is not like Brussels where often an explicit timetable for policy exists so you know when and where decisions will be taken and at what stages and when stakeholders will be consulted.

    In Westminster, time should be spent working out the timetable for a policy so that the campaign has, sometimes a best guess, built into it. This is essential as it relates directly back to the first point, delivering a workable solution. Solutions can vary over time depending on where the issue is in the policy-making process. It also highlights the need to get involved in policy development and design from the earliest opportunity. The more you can shape and offer constructive engagement the less likely adverse outcomes are. You can only know when this time is, however, if you are following the relevant issues and know the timetable.
  4. Wrong level – especially for CEOs and other senior executives, there is a temptation to aim contact at the very top, a fixation on No 10 and the mis-guided belief that the Prime Minister or Secretary of State controls all the levers of power. In fact, Steve Hilton's recent comments about the power of the civil service show that even No 10 does not think it has complete control over the operation of government.

    In fact, going straight to the top from the outset will just show that you do not understand the policy-making process. You may get a nice picture of your CEO outside the door of No 10 for the intranet site and company magazine but it won't increase the chances of a campaign's success.
  5. Too much emphasis on the media – the media card can be played too early in a public affairs campaign. The knee-jerk assumption that the media can be a way of applying pressure on politicians to take action can have exactly the opposite effect. If politicians and government feel pressurised too early without having had the option of dealing with the issue and considering it then the media spotlight can cause them to dig their heels in. This will only lessen the chances of success for the campaign, add to costs and lengthen the timescale.

Of course, a good public affairs campaign needs to be fleet of foot and change of time, have robust messages and have clear aims but if an initial audit focuses on these five issues then it will have a much better chance of success.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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Stuart Thomson
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