Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The Top 5 Reasons to Hire a Lobbyist...and why they're not the ''Boogeyman''.

Shirley E. Greenberg from Ottawa's Women's Health Centre said it so clearly last April when in reference to a lobbyist initiative on health care, that lobbying has its place in Canadian public policy. Click here for the background information relating to this story from the Toronto Star.

I could go on forever on how unfair I believe the criticism government relations recieves from media commentators and the public alike. In itself, this issue could form the basis of a thesis! What I will say is that the stereotypes need to be addressed. To do that, what's needed is a clear understanding of when the practice of government relations is most effective. These conditions need to be communicated more vocally. Specifically, lobbying isn't right in every circumstance, nor is hiring a GR consultant.

To be clear with my clients and prospective clients, I lay out at least five conditions and/or circumstances that warrant a lobbying campaign:

1. A municipality or non-profit needing funding: Some may be aware that I've succeeded in the past with gaining previously refused infrastructure funding for a municipal client I once had. In fact, for the Municipality of Allumette Island, I secured over $30,000. Often, I'm approached by other non-profits and municipalities seeking funding.

The conditions for success here usually depend on a number of factors. First, a GR consultant will need to review if any existing sources of funding are out there. There is little sense in trying to re-invent the wheel. I've found the benefit of good government relations in this aspect promotes an application one step further. It also helps to ensure a file doesn't remain buried at the bottom of the pile of the thousands others received. If the funding programmes don't already exist, organizations should not expect immediate results. Time will be necessary to build awareness and the case for WHY funding would be needed.

The next condition for success deals with whether or not an organization has the funding to hire a consultant. Contrary to the beliefs of some, government relations consultants cannot charge based on commissions received from the total amount acquired. In fact, recent legislation at the federal level has even made this illegal! The same is the case with several other provinces. This means that the clients we take on understand that like everybody else, we have mortgages to pay as well:)

The final condition for this subset is the general purpose for which the subsidy or funding is being sought. Long gone are the days wherein governments would finance every demand under the sun. For a request to made, there needs to be a rock solid case that every Canadian will benefit from the transaction. In addition, it certainly would not hurt if it can be proven that the cause promoted backs the agenda of the government or would assist in improving their popularity.

2. Assistance in seeking procurement advice: Government relations people can also help companies acquire new business! Acquiring contracts through the RFP process can be challenging to say the least. It's about understanding and getting to the heart of what government purchases are really seeking. One of the most common areas GR consultants are called upon in this field is with the Department of National Defence (DND).

3. Ongoing monitoring and advice of political developments and how those can impact an industry or company: There is enormous value in having the input and insight of an ''insider'' with connections in the corridors of power. Contrary to popular belief, the connections lobbyists have are not used to gain special favours for themselves or clients. Instead, the connections they have become useful when the particular direction of a government is uncertain. When a client needs to know if a Minister or bureaucrat's inclination is leaning one way or if consideration is being given to study or review a regulation, upfront notice is invaluable. During my time with the Canadian Construction Association, my connections within the Finance Department and the continual contact I had there meant I was able to warn the association executive of pending review and study of bankruptcy regulations. Without having the benefit of ongoing monitoring, CCA could have been ''surprised'' with a decision unfavourable to the industry.

4. Coalition building amongst associations and varying stakeholders: Lobbyists are team builders for causes not always understood by policy makers or all Canadians. Sometimes it becomes necessary to gather different interests together on a common point. While at the Canadian Construction Association, I coordinated 7 different associations together to form a united front on the need for more investment in infrastructure. Each of the respective associations (including the Canadian Construction Association) had valid points but had we all gone to government on the same issue with varying points and at varying times, the risk of a dilluted message was very plausible. By combining our efforts into a single event on a message with which all could be comfortable, our message was heard more loudly and more clearly.

Needless to say, coordinating such an effort takes finesse, time and skill. Government Relations Consultants possess the know-how and abilities to make these campaigns and events possible.

5. Building awareness of unfair legislation or regulations that could hurt a segment of Canadian industry or the population:
In reality, Government Relations is an offshoot or cousin of Public Relations. The difference of course comes from whom the message is targeted. Effective Government Relations builds awareness with policy makers. By the nature of the amount of decisions Parliament must make every day and the varying interests with which it must contend, it is inevitable that every day decisions may overlook the concerns of affected parties. Engaging a good lobbyist would be similar to engaging the services of a good lawyer. It means that a cause will get its fair say before those who ''judge'' what will be the acceptable policy course of action.


After dealing with what good lobbying practices are about, I think it is pertinent to briefly deal with what the government relations business is not about. Unfortunately, our business has some work ahead of itself in educating the public about perceived ideas of what it is we in GR do.

1. Influence peddling: As I touched on before, lobbyists generally do have contacts. However, these contacts are not used in the sense of a ''wink, wink...do my client a favour please.'' The laws in Canada regarding influence peddling are quite strict. While contacts help, they are not the be all and end all of success in the lobbying world. Contacts help break the ice in initial discussions but they will never replace good and solid understanding of the policy environment.

2. Setting up single meetings: The contacts I have developed over the years are precious. They have been built on a solid basis of a give and take relationship. On occasion, I will be asked if it is possible to set up a meeting or two as the sole basis for a contract. The trouble with this approach is that it neglects the whole purpose of WHY a meeting should take place. Before a meeting happens, there has to have been a solid case built to present to those targeted in government. If the basis of the government relations business was solely on setting up meetings, you could imagine how quickly our contacts would be burned out if lobbyists sent repeated client interests on different subjects there way every other day. To be honest, if setting up a meeting is your sole objective, you don't need a lobbyist! Pick up the phone yourself!

3. Contracts that take commissions or success fees: In the first paragraph of this article, I touched on the misconception of government relations consultants accepting success fees or commissions based on the amounts of funding a cause would receive or on contracts awarded to clients. Briefly said, this is illegal!!!

But legalities set aside, there is an aspect of this that unknowing clients fail to consider when suggesting such a fee schedule. In real terms, government moves slowly. As a result, rarely does it occur when a lobbyist is able to achieve a contract mandate in under a year or more. If payment were based solely on the final outcome without consideration of all the work that lead up to the success, a consultant could not reasonably expect payment for services rendered for more than a year or two! Needless to say, payment schedules based on commissions or success fees are hardly practical. Unfortunately, they remain the perceived form of payment lobbyists accept.
Mark Buzan is the owner of Action Strategies, a public affairs & marketing communications consultancy. You can subscribe now to his monthly public affairs newsletter by visiting the newsletter section of his website.

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