Recently, Tom Griscom, a partner at the communications firm Q Strategies, spoke to a group of PR professionals in Chattanooga at the PRSA Lookout chapter monthly luncheon.
You can read Tom’s extensive background in crisis management, advocacy and public policy, but suffice it to say, from the mayor’s office to the White House, Tom brings lots of experience to the table. He confided that government relations isn’t a topic he’s often asked to speak about, so this group got some very broad strategies as well as specific tactical approaches he hasn’t ever shared in a public setting. Luckily for you, we aren’t keeping them all secret.
But before we get into Tom’s tips, let’s define government relations.
“Government relations isn’t just lobbying or showing up to ask for favors or policy changes,” Tom said. “It’s also not something you can do because you are a people person. This is a mix of public affairs, persuasion, community communication and being able to think through long-term impact and strategy. This position requires being able to see both sides of an issue but communicate a strong message for your company or government official. And sometimes, it’s just about eating those terrible chicken dinners and signing checks. It all comes with the job.”
So how do you start a program or take it to the next level? Below are 10 tips from Tom Griscom to get you started on your own government relations program.
Tell the story. As a communication professional, it is your job to bring the story to both the professional and the community. You must explain complex issues and bring both sides together. You must be able to tell the story, because by telling the story you make it real. You are then able to show what can be accomplished if both sides work together.
Build relationships. You must be well connected with many people. You need to be able to build a relationship that will last. You want people to remember you the next day, not just when you walk in the door. You must also remember that you can only knock on someone’s door so many times. If you ask too often, they are less likely to take your important request seriously. If you do contact someone, set the priority of the issue, and tell him or her about what really matters.
Remember to reach out. If you are always asking for something, your contacts will know that you just want something from them. Take the time to reach out to them and contact them, but don’t ask for anything. Get to know them better, and those will be the moments they remember.
You must stay available at all times. You always have to be available. It is important to be accountable with your sources or contacts. If you never answer the phone and let it always go to voicemail, they might do the same to you.
Get to know the staff. People think you must meet with the mayor or be friends with the senator, but the real key is having a relationship with their staff. The staff runs everything. They are the backbone to any business. They are the ones that set priorities and answer your calls, and they are the ones that can get you in the door. Having a good-standing relationship with the staff is how you succeed.
Admit your mistakes. People are more forgiving than you think. If you make a mistake, it is important for you to admit it. Don’t try to hide it or keep it a secret. Once you admit your mistake, they will get past it and move forward.
Be realistic. Set expectations for what you can do realistically for your client. Make sure the client knows what to expect, because you’re not always going to get everything you need. Your client needs to understand that it’s a give and take environment. Rarely do you get everything you want.
You must be involved. Being involved is so important in this position. You always have to be involved with your client, and with the public, but sometimes it’s about deciding where to get involved. Setting priorities of where to be and how you will be seen is an important step. The little events are sometimes just as important as the big ones. Showing support is about having respect for your client and the community.
Protect your client. You are the last speed bump between the public and your client. This can be the elected official or the person who makes financial contributions. You have to practice good judgment in order to know when to step up and protect your boss. That means you might have to be the bad guy that declines an invitation or says no to a request. Understand your client’s priorities, and step in when you are needed.
Community is key. To have a successful strategy, you need a good community communications strategy. Building a group of community support that will back you is important. You must have that support to make a difference.
If you follow these tips, then you will on the right path to creating an effective strategy that is best for your client and the public you serve. Networking and consistently keeping in contact will assist you in becoming a better government relations professional.