Opinion

Good and bad advice for businesses thinking of lobbying the Government

Justin-Di-Lollo-201x301In this guest post lobbyist Justin Di Lollo debunks some bad advice and offers his own tips for lobbying in a Federal election year. 

Delegates to CommsCon 2016 with an interest in communications in government-exposed industries will hear plenty about the lobbying agenda in a very interesting election year. But most elements of effective lobbying hold true regardless of the proximity of the next election.

From time to time you’ll see ‘ten tips for lobbying’ lists. Some of these are great and others, in my opinion anyway, are terrible. Here’s a few bad and good tips to keep an eye out for.

Ten bad tips for lobbying (that have been published recently)

1. Do not make political donations.

This is just plain wrong. Political donations can be an important aspect of a government relations strategy – but never the only aspect. Donations certainly aren’t necessary – and if you make them, issues such as balance between parties, types of donations (e.g. attending functions) and public disclosure should be taken into account.

2. Make sure accountability for political engagement sits in your boardroom.

Ultimately, accountability for everything should sit in your boardroom. Lobbying is no more or less important than many other issues for companies exposed to government decision-making. Responsibility should sit with management.

3. Report publicly, comprehensively and accessibly on political engagement.

Again, engagement with government is a natural state of affairs for many companies. It’s not necessary to disclose engagement unless you’re required to by law or regulation (which companies are not in Australia, except where political donations are concerned).

4. Don’t bother government about your corporate philanthropy.

Wrong. Governments really care about social capital. But don’t soak up too much of your valuable face time with government talking about good works. You’ll need to get to the point quickly.

5. Don’t ask for more regulation.

Prima facie, most governments (particularly centre-right ones) want to reduce regulation rather than increase it. But new regulation is always being rolled out – so advocate for it if there’s a strong justification.

6. Don’t ask for money.

Again, all governments want to hear about savings, not expenditure. While you’re better off asking for support that doesn’t require expenditure, Australian governments are spending many billions a week. Ask for it if you have a strong case.

7. Don’t use lobbyists.

You could represent yourself in court, but if you’re smart, you’ll use a lawyer (a good one if you can afford it). Same goes for tax returns and accountants. It’s no different with lobbyists.

8. Join groups that do lobbying.

Peak representative bodies have their place and can be really useful. But ultimately, governments want to hear from companies themselves (after all, it’s you who creates economic activity, not a peak body).

9. Lobby politicians through the media.

Going ‘above the line’ should very rarely be your first choice. You can make your problems much worse and lose control of your message. Think carefully before talking to government through the media and always try private channels first.

10. Avoid party politics.

Government MPs are all members of political parties. You ignore their party political biases at your peril. Bureaucrats are always totally impartial, but they’re generally very politically savvy – so even there you can’t completely avoid party politics.

Ten good tips for lobbying

1. Be clear.

Know exactly what your ‘ask’ is of government and make it realistic. Don’t ask for too many things and be specific about what you need and why. Don’t waste time on a problem with no solution.

2. Find out who has a seat at the decision-making table and tailor your messages to suit.

Make sure you know who in government actually makes the key decisions (i.e. Parliament, Cabinet, a minister, a public servant or regulator), how they make it and who influences them.

3. Know the process.

Government is all about process. Each step of a process represents an opportunity to get involved with the decision.

4. Listen more, talk less.

When meeting with government, don’t soak up more than 25 per cent of your time presenting. The real value will come through two-way conversation.

5. Prepare thoroughly.

Develop supporting evidence for your case. Be accurate and concise. Understand that different people in government may be influenced by different aspects of your proposal.

6. ‘Own’ your weaknesses.

You get limited opportunities to make your case, while those who might oppose you within government get many. Pre-empt their arguments. If you don’t acknowledge and address your weaknesses, others will do it behind your back.

7. Speak the language of government.

Government people don’t always understand the private sector way of communicating. Vice-versa even more so. Understand government’s way of speaking and endeavour to couch your messaging in those terms.

8. Always drive next steps.

Government’s natural inclination is to ‘note and thank’ in meetings. It’s your responsibility to suggest and confirm next steps (submissions, workshops, follow-up meetings, etc).

9. Be reliable.

When government asks you for action or evidence (which it probably will), provide the information on time and be accurate and concise.

10. Evaluate and learn.

Always review progress, be prepared to adapt or change. You may not get everything you want but make sure you get what you need.

  • Justin Di Lollo is the head of government relations companies (including Hawker Britton and Barton Deakin) at STW Group. He tweets at @JustinDiLollo

Di Lollo will be joined on a panel at CommsCon by Barton Deakin’s John Griffin and Hawker Britton’s Claire March to discuss the Lobbying Agenda of 2016. For more information on the CommsCon program and to buy tickets click on the banner below.

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