#NewWay2Lobby: Where Capobianco gets it wrong

John Capobianco, national public affairs lead at Fleishman-Hillard in Toronto and president of the Public Affairs Association of Canada, said he’s glad the new code is more explicit about what’s allowed but that it would limit lobbyists’ roles this fall.

Here’s the way our political system is designed to work:

  1. We elect representatives to carry our concerns to Parliament
  2. Parliament ensures constituency concerns are heard and incorporated in policy development.
  3. When the next election roles around, we determine whether or Member of Parliament did a good job; if yes, we re-elect them and if not, we choose someone else.

Of course in the real world, we now have Members of Parliament who are government, political parties who push selling points through MPs to constituencies and lobbyists who ensure the concerns of paying interests are also heard and responded to by government.

The best lobbyists have a solid understanding of both the policy and political processes, which usually comes from time inside government itself. Included with this is familiarity with and access to the people making decisions.

While not all lobbyists meet the public image of devious back-roomers pulling strings in government for ridiculous sums of cash from vested interests, some of that certainly does happen. These folk taint the industry, which is why professional and socially responsible lobbyists welcome appropriate rules that reduce inappropriate actions from people in the field.

Having said this, the reality of the GR industry is that politicians are incredibly busy people who must prioritize among competing parliamentary and political issues. The number one job of a politician is to get elected — more than anything, that means boots on the ground and money in the bank. Those stakeholders who can help on those fronts as well as raising policy concerns naturally have an easier time bending ears.

It’s not insidious, this — it’s human nature, and it’s not going to change.

To be successful in GR, you need to develop clout with policy makers to arrange meetings, raise issues, garner attendance at events, so on and so forth — right? The only way to get that is to be involved in political campaigns directly — right?

Nope. There are plenty of other options available for GR consultants who want to think outside the box. All it takes is a solid understanding of how the ground-level reality has changed since our model of Parliament was formed, and a little bit of altruism.

Teach a Client to Fish

GR in many ways suffers from the same ailments that inflict public services; value is determined by your access and your knowledge, meaning these are things to guard jealously. If you teach a client your tricks and build direct bridges for them, what need have they of you?

The truth is, professional groups in need of GR services will never have the time or bandwidth seasoned, dedicated lobbyists do. Even when they’re really, really good, the sheer scope of government relations — how many calls, members, media scans and the like — makes complete internalization unrealistic. They will always need to source external help and when they do, they’ll turn to the people they know, trust and appreciate.

Besides, politics and political access is a dynamic space; by the time a client masters fishing, the world will have moved on to the ‘Net, requiring more assistance. If good GR people stay on top of the game — changing players, policy, digital tools, community groups — they will always be needed.

When you teach clients to be direct lobbyists, you create distance between you and the candidates or parties you want to work for, reducing your limitations. Naturally, legislation will catch up to this eventually, but you’ll be ready to adapt to that reality too, won’t you?

Teach the Fish to Lobby

It’s common wisdom that decisions are made at the top and if you want to influence those decisions, the top is the place to start. There’s truth to this, but the best GR consultants also keep in mind Sun-tzu’s maxim about establishing a landscape of victory.

By the time the key decision makers make their choice, everyone they turn to advice should be converted or thwarted. That’s how you gurantee victory.

Parliamentarians aren’t the only voices impacting government policy. Those usually viewed as targets or audiences — the voter —can have direct skin in the game. Thanks to social media anyone with sufficient numbers, a compelling narrative and a bit of marketing moxie can shape policy.

A well-executed Facebook campaign can be enough to make leaders blink.

Smart GR folk (and the clients they serve) are making use of this changing communications landscape to empower end-users to do the lobbying/campaigning for them. It’s not a low-hanging fruit solution, but is a more sustainable one -especially as regulations change. There will never be a law that prohibits communities from engaging their government.

Who benefits from the position/services of a client? What are their numbers, their levels of civic engagment look like? How can they be trained, inspired and mobilized to take action, join a campaign or run their own lobbying campaigns that further a client’s goals?

We live in an age where thirteen-year olds are confidently making deputations, running social media campaigns and even landing face-time with Premiers. If you can empower and harness such communities like that, the possibilities are endless.

As sector after sector is shaken by the changing economic reality, traditional GR clients are all being forced to adapt their services and approaches. This is most often thought of as a good thing; challenge is the mother of opporunity, etc. If it’s true for their clients, can’t it be true for GR practicioners themselves?

GR folk shouldn’t be too concerned about their options becoming limited as regulations around their profession change. Instead, they should be thinking outside the box for the new opportunities arising and be the first ones to capitalize on them.

Should any of them be interested in discussing this further, they can drop me a line at cce@wakata.ca or (416) 312–8307.