Johnny Fallon

Irish Political Commentator

How to run a successful Public Affairs Campaign

In our youth most of us want to believe we will change the world. As we get older some say we are less ambitious. Others argue it is just that we grasp a reality that the world is changed little by little rather than in one fell swoop. Whatever your view it is unlikely either way that you dreamed of doing that by being a lobbyist or working in public affairs.  Despite the lack of glamour public affairs still plays an important role in our society and our system. Whether it is charities, environmental groups, NGOs, corporations or community groups the ability to influence and help shape public policy is an important tool.

So if you want to change something how do you go about it? There is often a view that it is all about secret meetings, loud media, posters and fancy footwork but the reality is very different. I have been involved in professional public affairs campaigns for 17 years now and you have no idea how old that makes me feel. Over that time the styles have often changed but the basic approach remains the same. So here are the steps I have learned that give you the basic structure and stages for a policy campaign.

  1. Research

Everything starts with research. Good research is the bedrock of a good campaign. We all set out with opinions and ideas but our own personal biases must be challenged. You need to know the history of current policy. You need to approach this with an objective mind. Then you need to examine other similar examples. This may be taking a look at other industries or sectors or it may be analysing the experience of other comparable countries. You need to have some baseline evidence to show that what you want can actually work.  Once you have drawn all this together you have to validate it. At Carr Communications we use a tried and tested ‘Devil’s Advocate’ system for this. In short you (or someone on your team) has to argue against your own research. Pick holes in it. Understand the opposing arguments thoroughly and have the ability to empathise with them. This is vital to identifying gaps. Without it you will end up with a piece of research that is flawed by groupthink and others will target the gaps later.

  1. Consult and recruit

Once you have your own research complete it is time to seek out others for their input.  At this stage you know you have a well thought out idea. You are seeking input from other related sectors or other players in the market. It may also be from communities or grass roots organisations. They will bring new angles that might not have been brought up in your initial research, they may also have additional ideas that can help or boost your plan. However, you are also seeking to recruit them. By getting their input you are also hoping to gain their support. At the end of the day it is simple maths. If you can demonstrate 20 organisations or a large number of people back your idea then it is much stronger than if you are walking in to argue your case alone.

  1. Engage with decision makers

With support now on board and a strong proposal under your arm, now is the time to meet decision makers. Many people make the error of engaging too early. If you do this then you risk the idea falling flat because of a perceived flaw or lack of appreciation of its impact. At this stage it is important that you know and can identify the actual decision makers. Too much time can be wasted talking to people who merely send your idea up the line. You need to get in front of people that can actually make things happen.  The skill at this stage is in understanding the decision maker and anticipating their questions. Answering their problems for them is critical to success.

  1. Wider engagement

This stage depends very much on the idea or proposal. For the majority it is often not needed. For larger plans however you may need to face a debate, criticism or require public support. In this case you must have much wider engagement. This means you must talk to the media and be able to clearly and concisely lay out the benefits of what your propose.  It is likely that this stage then runs concurrently with the other stages mentioned here. Personally, I insist that anybody that has to do this takes time for media training. Being right or honest isn’t the only requirement. Being understood is the real key.  Sometimes the best of ideas are lost, not because they were bad, but because the person behind them couldn’t communicate them. In the modern age your campaign may also need to engage social media and gather support on Twitter, Facebook , Snapchat and other platforms can be vital.  Once again the central ingredient is to be simple and engaging. This can take a lot of time but It can also be worthwhile if you need that broad pressure.

So there you have it. Sounds simple doesn’t it? Of course there are complexities and problems along the way and that is why so many people turn to a professional to help. However, understanding the importance of each of these broad stages is essential to building a good campaign. There is one other thing I recommend. Patience. All things come to he (or she) who waits. You will have set backs, meet barriers and encounter delays. All of this is to be expected. Working through it and navigating a way around it is where the real talent lies.


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