Why Don’t You Just Meet Me in the Middle?

Why you should embrace an integrated approach to government relations.

Recently, I have been having more frequent conversations with organizations about the benefits of integrating public affairs tactics into a government relations and/or communications strategy. And inevitably, every time I begin talking about this approach, the song The Middle starts running through my mind. 

If you don’t know the tune, consider yourself lucky; it’s very catchy and will easily get stuck in your head. All you need to know is the chorus, “Why don’t you just meet me in the middle?”

This applies to public affairs because, quite simply, public affairs is the middle – the space where public relations (communications) and government affairs (policy and advocacy) meet, combining both tactics for a cohesive approach to a problem. For visual learners out there, picture the perfect Venn diagram.

The convergence of communications and policy has numerous benefits. Namely, the more that the right-hand talks to the left, the better the outcome. Communications strategies informed by policy insights will ensure that what’s being communicated to the public will bolster the organization’s standing with lawmakers or prevent potential policy pushback. Similarly, government affairs tactics that rely on smart communications will make certain that messages resonate most effectively with elected officials.

Far too often, organizations silo these two areas into separate workstreams that rarely converge. When this happens, opportunities to maximize campaigns, initiatives, good news and outcomes get overlooked. Recently, a sizeable company launched an initiative to profile select minority- and women-owned businesses across the country. The roll-out highlighted the businesses on their corporate website, through local events, media placements and social media posts – clearly a strategy designed by the communications team. What it failed to include was a congressional component: no invitation for members of Congress to attend local events, no plan to flag press hits for congressional offices, and no briefings for the Small Business Administration, the Congressional Tri-Caucus and other relevant committees or caucuses on the challenges these business owners face. In a crowded sea of competitors, this was a missed opportunity in which the company could have differentiated itself and opened doors to new congressional allies.

So why should you meet me in the middle?

Here are three reasons why you should pursue a public affairs strategy.

Crisis Mitigation
It’s the classic case for lobbying – we have a problem and need Congress to solve it. But if you’re meeting with lawmakers for the first time while in crisis, it’s going to be increasingly difficult to win their support. Rather, before the crisis, start the education process at the same time you are developing the communications strategy. Of course, that can happen through congressional outreach, but it also should happen through events, media hits and social posts. A positive news story in a regional paper should serve as collateral to open doors on the Hill; a site visit can be used to showcase an organization and its employees to a member of Congress and serve as a hook for local media coverage; and an op-ed can be used to introduce an executive as a thought leader for future congressional hearing consideration. Sharing the good your organization does now will ensure you have allies on your side when it’s needed most.
Organizations often view lawmakers simply as people who can make or break them through policy and regulation. But members of Congress can do the same through a social post or public comment, and organizations that leverage congressional leaders to amplify a message will always be most successful. Consider Congress as another target audience as you develop any communications strategy. Share talking points, offer sample social posts and graphics, provide content for their constituent newsletter or ask if they might want to include a quote in your press release. With their expansive following and vast echo chamber, policymakers can quickly elevate any initiative, company or thought leader.
Policymakers have a lot on their respective plates. They need smart messaging that can cut through the noise to educate them quickly and effectively on what they should care most about and why. And that education isn’t going to be effective without a coordinated approach between communications and policy to define the issue in terms of the member’s interest and local impact.

Organizations invest heavily in advocacy around issues that pose a threat to their way of doing business, their revenue stream, their basic existence. Similarly, they put extensive resources behind marketing the good work they are doing to give back or advance outcomes. When siloed, policy and communications advance their own priorities. Together – in the middle – they effectively support each other to play offense and defense with policymakers in Washington and beyond.

Emily Pappas

Emily Pappas is a managing director at Cogent Strategies where she specializes in public affairs. Emily is an expert at designing and executing local and national campaigns that leverage strategic communications to influence Washington’s top policymakers. For Emily’s complete bio, click here.

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