Government Relations in the Digital Age

August 18, 2022

John F. Kennedy is often cited as the first “television” President of the United States for his ability to use technology to engage an electorate. Several decades later, Barack Obama was dubbed the first “social media” President for his administration’s ability to harness digital transformation. These labels not only tell the story of the way political leaders used technology but also underscore the changes that happened in terms of how politics functioned. It is virtually impossible to approach legislative change without considering the role digital technology plays in government relations today. So here are a few tips to effectively navigate your advocacy efforts in our digital era.

  1. Some things never change. Relationships matter. The tools of relationship building may evolve, but the building blocks of sound relationships rarely do. Building relationships takes time. Do your homework and understand what matters to those you are trying to influence. Be respectful – particularly of people’s time. Always be honest and trustworthy. Never hit send on a flame tweet. Be consistent and communicate purposefully. Look for areas where you can be helpful to a decision-maker. And finally, in a sea of emails and tweets, never underestimate the power of the simple phone call.
  2. Know the “players”, the “game” and “the rules”. By this, I do not mean to suggest that politics is a game (although I appreciate there are days it does seem that way!). Instead, what I mean here is that when you understand who the decision-makers are, where the decision-making points lie, and who is responsible for what decisions, you can be a lot more effective in your approach. Digital technology can be a great asset to you here. There are many great (and less great) services and platforms available that track legislative progress, aggregate public opinion on issues, monitor policy positions and voting records and the like. Here is where it is also helpful to stay apprised of opposition positions too. Selecting the right tools gives you the intelligence needed to plan and execute your efforts more effectively.
  3. Set your priorities. What exactly are you trying to change? Be specific. If you are just beginning your advocacy work, break down the change you are seeking into smaller legislative steps that build toward bigger wins. All day, every day, politicians are engaged with constituents and supporters looking to change something. Understand that if you do get the opportunity to meet with a legislator or their office staff, often the first question they will ask you is: “How do you want me to help?”. Being extremely clear and concise about the change you want to see lets you seize those opportunities as they appear. Here again, digital tools, like those noted in point number 2 can help your organization observe and orient to the issues, as well as decide upon and action keystone priorities.
  4. Seek out and build support. Most politicians work hard to keep their constituents and supporters happy. When those interests are solidly aligned, a politician’s job is easy. And that is a rare occasion indeed. In many cases, elected officials are navigating fine lines between different groups of stakeholders. Is your website optimized to inform and align potential supporters to the issues you seek to influence? Are you using online surveys or social posts to measure or demonstrate issue support? Does your staff team understand the importance of accurately gathering key database intelligence (names, contact information, preferences, behaviours) you might need to leverage in support of your advocacy goals? Do your employee performance metrics reflect the importance of this work? Are you providing your customers, members, or clients with opportunities to engage with you and like-minded others – perhaps by live-streaming a panel discussion or using social media posts to spark conversation? Have you assigned the necessary resources to build out a social media campaign empowering your stakeholders to line up behind a public position on a key issue? The bottom line is that when it comes to making change in government, the bigger your crowd, the more attention you will likely get from politicians.
  5. And finally, remember that attention cuts both ways. Trust is your currency when it comes to effective government relations. In most cases, achieving change at the legislative level is a marathon, not a sprint, so if you choose to cut corners or lift up one political party while putting another down, sooner or later it will catch up to you and could sink your longer-term agenda. Strive to be credible, forthright, respectful and fair to everyone you meet along the way, and you will develop a well-respected reputation regardless of the political stripes of those making decisions.