Strong government relations takes more than just watching Congress

Strong government relations takes more than just watching Congress
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The phrase that sends shudders through most advocates in Washington when they are described by their relatives is that “he or she works in the swamp.” But with so much partisanship in Congress, uncertainty in the executive branch, and the media focused on Russia, how do you tell the chief executive officer of your company or association that there is great value in spending energy and resources in building a strong government relations program?

Of course, each company or association is different. But we believe these tips will convince senior organizational leadership that a return on investment in government relations not only exists, but also requires additional financial commitments in the future.

Government relations means more than just watching Congress

The federal government continues to be more involved in business practices, deals and monitoring behavior. The Trump administration has pushed to decrease excessive or unnecessary regulation but regulation still persists. Your government relations team needs to monitor and oversee what various departments and agencies are doing to shape your industry. Being absent puts the company or association at a competitive disadvantage and can have ill effects across other parts of the organization.

Your competitors may turn to the government to gain an advantage

The market no longer solely focuses on customer satisfaction, quality of goods or services, or price. Competition is so intense that smart government relations advocates look for opportunities to leverage government on behalf of their companies or sectors. These savvy advocates look to regulation, tax policies, or government rules to give their organizations a competitive advantage. We can see some of this in recent change in tax laws. The law arguably started out as mostly a tax tool for very large businesses. Only through advocacy did smaller business finally get provisions to level the playing field.

Government relations protects the reputation of your organization

Much of recent advocacy is also about industry or sector reputation. With the speed of the internet and the intense desire by traditional news to drive ratings, savvy advocates continually build reputation “goodwill” with influential Washington institutions and leaders, including elected officials, associations, nonprofits, executive branch officials, courts and the media. The government relations team spreads the good news, such as importance to the economy, number of jobs, charitable support, commitment to diversity and inclusion, and other positive results.

Government relations is proliferating goodwill to consistently maintain a positive reputation. One day, you will likely need to use that capital to offset an ugly or very biased article or “tweet” that is released into social media or traditional news world. This crisis scenario could be designed to undermine your credibility and reputation. Your communications team will take command and execute its plan to minimize damage.

But what really minimizes the damage is the reputation your government relations team has already built by creating relationships, treating people with dignity and respect, even if you disagree, and being decent. This daily reputation building makes it hard, if not impossible, for adversaries to create negative momentum and hurt the bottom line of the corporation or association.

You can quantify the impact of government relations for results

Build the positive value case for the government relations program. You can “price” the cost of legislation or regulation that has been introduced, and if passed, the value of the economic impact on the sector or business. It is important to make sure that the estimate is realistic. Doing this takes away political partisanship by emphasizing the real consequences of not engaging. Leaders will quickly conclude that you will need to alter a bill to reduce the financial exposure or outright work to have it disappear.

Those you attempt to influence can also make the case for you

Your senior leadership or association president expects you to defend your department and your position as necessary. But one effective way to make the point is to recruit an elected official to subtly make the case on your behalf. You do need to ask and let them say or write in their own words, but you can serve as a coach. Business and association leaders demonstrate a great respect for elected officials, as the elected officials are seen as the “experts” of what is happening in Washington.

A few comments about your government relations program, its reputation in Washington, and its effectiveness not only keeps you in the job, but also probably means you might even have additional resources in the next budget cycle. As you choose the appropriate tips that help you, you cannot let your guard down and assume your government relations program will not be evaluated. Forward thinking advocates at every level set performance goals of their government relations department and their team. Report the results annually.

Joshua Habursky is director of advocacy at the Independent Community Bankers of America, chairman of the Grassroots Professional Network, and adjunct professor at West Virginia University. David Rehr is a professor at the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University, former president of the National Beer Wholesalers Association, and former president of the National Association of Broadcasters.