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Building Winning Relationships By Andrew MacDougall MSLGROUP

Building Winning Relationships By Andrew MacDougall MSLGROUP



Andrew MacDougall, former government spokesman in Canada and currently Senior Executive Consultant in our London office, was recently invited to speak at a conference organised by Harvard Business ...

Andrew MacDougall, former government spokesman in Canada and currently Senior Executive Consultant in our London office, was recently invited to speak at a conference organised by Harvard Business Review Poland and MSLGROUP called “Priceless Reputation – protects, mobilizes, sells” in Warsaw.
He brings context to the public affairs industry and its challenges including budget pressures and reputation issues. He also shares the building blocks for successful partnerships and how transparency is the new normal.
More here: http://blog.mslgroup.com/harvard-business-review-mslgroup-conference-on-reputation/



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  • Because so much of good communications is expectation management – here is the ground I expect we’ll cover.Governments don’t operate in isolation so it’s important to consider the context in which the government is operating.Then we’ll discuss the proper building blocks for a good relationship. And we’ll close by talking about the importance of transparency.
  • Before we consider how companies should be going about building winning relationships with government, I thought it would be helpful to cover a bit of the context in which the vast majority of governments – Western governments at least – are operating. Context is key – governments don’t operate in a vacuum and they don’t consider proposals from industry in a vacuum, and so if companies present themselves as if they themselves are in a vacuum the government is not likely to consider the proposals seriously. We’ll cover a few main areas:Thanks to the global economic meltdown governments are facing huge fiscal pressures – pressures which limit their room to move.Partly in response to the tough economic choices they’ve had to make, governments are suffering from low approval ratings and reputational issues. This makes their voice less credible.The crisis has stretched the limits of conventional policymaking – there is an opportunity now for partnership and unorthodox approaches.
  • As you well know, the economic downturn in 2007/8/9 forced governments into huge amounts of new spending.Many of the Western economies were already under huge pressures due to entitlements and demographic pressures. The recession made everything worse.You all live in the Eurozone, so I don’t need to tell you how hard this has been for governments, and for private sector companies that were frozen out of the credit markets or who are waiting for confidence to return before making new investments.In a sense the downturn made it easier for companies to partner with governments. In Canada, we had to get billions out the door in new infrastructure projects out the door and so partnership agreements were simplified and processes were sped up. (Without scandal in our case, I must add!)That said, as the recovery begins to take hold, governments are now being faced with tough choices – choices that are leading to unpopularity with the electorate and to reputational issues
  • I put Mayor Ford up here in jest – whatever difficulties he’s facing, he has managed to keep the budget in Toronto on the right path. It’s really the only thing you can say in his favour. The broader point is that when you’re facing reputational issues as a government, your room to manoeuver is limited. The same goes for companies of course. If you’re facing reputation issues – I can think of companies like G4S, who have set a record for appearances in the FT – it stops you from getting your message out too.Roland has already covered the ground here – I wanted to reinforce that you have to keep your reputation intact, and watch out for who you’re dealing with.
  • Like I said – be careful who you associate with.This photo was taken long before there were any crack issues, I would like to add. True story – I was in to see the editor of the Toronto Star in May and he asked me if I thought the mayor was on drugs. Two days later they broke the story about his crack video. For the record, I did not comment.
  • And before my European friends get too comfortable here, I will remind you that reputational issues and threats are a part of any government.Mayor Ford and Mr. Flowers – united by class a drugs.
  • I’m having a bit of a laugh here – I’m told in Europe that we can all laugh at the French - although, I suppose I ultimately work for a French company so I should watch my tongue. Je m’excuse M. Levy.The point I’m trying to make is the following: the more governments have to defend against reputational issues, which the press love, by the way, the less energy and focus they’ll have on governing.And that’s bad for business. Look at Hollande - one days it’s the lorry drivers – the next it’s the footballers. The government is reversing itself it seems like everyday. He is clearly not in control of his agenda.They’re selling the wine out of the Elysee cellar for God’s sake. It’s madness.
  • Which leads me to my main point – one of the most pernicious manifestations of reputation issues are competence issues.If a government is losing the competence war – like Mr. Obama is doing right now following the fumble on Syria and the botched rollout of Obamacare – then your chances of building a relationship and advancing your agenda decreases.Companies have to weigh the full range of factors before engaging with government. They need to have a full and fair understanding of context.And we should remember that it works both ways, of course. The government isn’t looking for you to be one of their reputational issues, so govern yourselves accordingly and keep your noses clean.And if you play your cards right – a government in crisis can provide an opportunity, provided you have a good relationship with them.
  • There are a few key pieces companies need to get right if they’re going to build good working relationships with government.To repeat, these blocks may seem self-evident, but it never ceased to amazed me how little they were followed by companies seeking to build partnerships with the Harper government in Canada.First – companies need to work to build understanding. You don’t jump into bed on the first date (ok, maybe some of you do) – and so you shouldn’t ask a lot from someone you don’t know. So, get to know the government.Two – speak the language. Governments are political – so explain what you’re trying to do in political terms. I can guarantee you the government will do their own translation – so present your best case.The third key is to reciprocate – governments expect to hear from business when business needs something. But governments – especially now – offer need business to act as third party validators and stakeholders, so be prepared to help the gov’t out when it calls.And, lastly – plan ahead and plan carefully. Government is big, dumb, and slow. It takes time to action items. It’s not the private sector – things can’t and don’t change on a dime, so don’t act like you expect them to. And certainly don’t count on them changing quickly.
  • Government isn’t business and business isn’t government. Don’t assume there is a natural understanding. You won’t be jumping into the sack together right off the bat. You’re going to have to date for a little while. Tightening of lobbying law in Canada led to political staff that were much younger and less knowledgeable about the private sector. Had to work harder with bureaucrats to build understanding. There are almost two levels of thinking to interpret.That said, don’t ask for the world on the first meeting. It might be that you need the world, but the likelihood that the government is going to give the keys to the kingdom to a new relationship is unlikely.I would also counsel to avoid having your first meeting be in a crisis situation. People are under pressure during crisis and it’s not likely you’ll put your best foot forward. Also, governments want to move quickly and shut down problems so if the issue is complicated and the solution is complicated you’re not likely to get the outcome you desire.Each meeting doesn’t have to be a mini-summit. Get to know the relevant players and let them get to know you.I used to apply the same principles in my relationships with reporters – if the first time I’m calling a reporter is because I need something changed in my story I’m in trouble. However, if I know them and they know me, and they trust me, I’ll have a greater chance at success.Brief ahead of the meeting – don’t table drop documents. Greater chance for misunderstanding if people are briefed and know what the ask is ahead of time.
  • Returning to the Mars/Venus observation – it certainly applies to the language companies use versus the language of gov’t.Companies seem to forget that governments want to be re-elected and so you should analyse your ask in terms of how it helps/hurts the government’s prospects for re-election.Once again, the broader context should be considered. What might seem to you to be a small hit to the government’s reputation/agenda could be untenable if the gov’t has a number of other fights going on at the same time. Likewise, the nature of the hit matters – if the gov’t has just fought a battle on similar grounds it might hesitate to take another blow. CONTEXT. (enviroregs changes/omnibus)I mean this point in a quite literal sense as well – use the language the government uses. Our mantra in Canada was – and remains - “jobs, growth, and long-term prosperity” and so when a company would use that language it would tell us they were paying attention. As opposed to say, “creating the green jobs of the future” – that might be what *you* want to do, but it’s not the gov’ts frame.Another concern – companies tend to describe problems in their terms, what it means to them. This is entirely natural – we’re all selfish. But what problem – political problem – does this solve for the government? If you don’t have an answer to that question your prospects will dim.Remember that good communication involves motive – here’s the issue, here’s why it’s a problem, here’s what we’re going to do about it, and here’s what it will mean for you. (CRIME EXAMPLE or SMALL BIZ EXAMPLE).To the last point – governments know and expect that bad news will come. But don’t make it a surprise. We expected criticism from right-of-centre fiscal groups – but we always appreciated it when they would give us a heads up prior to releasing any criticism about spending, for example. That way we could prepare our response. Again, a simple courtesy. But critical to show the government that you’re interested in partnership.
  • Companies can become solipsistic – it’s easy to focus so much on your own needs that you don’t remember that your counterparty has needs too.Just as you don’t treat your personal relationships as all take and no give, the same applies to a relationship you’re trying to build with government.Everyone has that friend who always has their hand out – don’t be that person.And companies should never assume the government will do all of the work. One energy company listened to the government’s words on energy, saw its legislative agenda and then downed tools on their efforts on the project, assuming the government was prepared to carry the weight.Fairly soon the project got tied down in a fierce debate and the government was upset the company had backed out of the fight assuming the government would bring down the hammer.Governments have long memories.As much as you can, build capital. If the government needs a venue, or stakeholder support on a broader issue – an issue that might not be a priority for your firm but it still beneficial – lend the government a hand. Offer to do some media in support of government priorities. And always – and this is a key one – say “thank you” if you get a win. To repeat – governments have long memories and basic courtesy goes a long way.
  • Returning once again to the Mars/Venus meme – governments are operationally weak. Or as I like to say they’re big, dumb, and slow. There’s a lot of dead weight, a lot of bureaucracy – and a lot of inertia that has to be overcome.The point is a simple one – the nature of your ask will determine how much time you’ll need. If you need a legislative change you have to expect months of coordinated effort so plan ahead. Obviously, if the change you seek is a regulatory one that can be changed without cabinet consultation or legislative action then your lead time.Don’t forget that politicians – like you folks – are busy. Whim is not possible. Our office used to get regular phone calls from companies asking for the prime minister to participate in an event the next week! We planned the prime minister’s schedule months in advance and his travel is not simple, there are logistical, security and other considerations that factor in.The next piece of advice is never to tackle an issue cold. If people – and the government - don’t know there’s a problem then they won’t be receptive to your solution. So I would encourage companies to seed the public debate with facts that illustrate your problem. This is where the multitude of new communications channels can be particularly helpful – it needn’t be an op-ed in the FT, it can be a well-crafted video for posting on digital and social channels. This is something that is being done well now by social campaigners – but not so much by the corporate world.The last point might seem to contradict all that I’ve said – it’s a simple acknowledgement of reality. Sometimes opportunities do present themselves, so don’t have all of your eggs in one basket – be ready to move on all issues.
  • Again, all companies should remember the context in which they and governments are now operating.Across the Western world there is a movement toward greater transparency in dealings between industry/ngoand the government.For example, in Canada the Harper government passed the Federal Accountability Act which, among other things, created a lobbyist registry and created a class of designated public office holders who had to declare their meetings and the broad subject matter of that meeting. The “cash for questions” scandal in Britain forced a similar shift to transparency and the recent A second point to consider – there are now more people with voices in the debate. It used to be that companies and the media were the only partners who could generate news. Now companies and governments have to operate in a world where any whistleblower has instant access to a broadcast platform – usually the internet.A third factor to consider is the multiplication of threats – what I’ll call the Snowden factor. More information is now being sent electronically – and opportunities for espionage and/or disclosure is ever-present.Finally, there’s another thing you should consider.In addition to the multiplication of voices – and the chance you could be waylaid by a tweet – there is a commensurate lowering of the threshold for reporting an event. I used to see this all of the time – a reporter tweets a lot more than they could ever get in the paper. Things they would never dream of putting in the paper they will put out there online. Companies should take solace in the fact that a reported meeting, while of some news value, and only some in a 24/7 environment, is infinitely less newsworthy than a secret meeting.
  • Transparency is here to stay. Although backrooms will always be a part of political and corporate life, their importance will diminish with the shift to transparency.Getting back to my point about reportability – politicians and public figures – including corporate leaders – can no longer expect discretion. If they’re spotted at an event speaking to a politician, our spotted out to dinner with them, or spotted going into their offices – the means exist for the average observer or reporter to make that fact known.When I worked for the Prime Minister he would go out for lunch with buddies from time to time – and people would tweet that he was at the restaurant, often the restaurant owner would be the one doing it. Couldn’t deny he was there.The move to transparency will also force companies to hold themselves to a higher standard. It’s no longer sufficient to hold yourself to the letter of the law, you must also hold yourself to the spirit of the law.And you must assume that your dealings will be public and so you had better have a message to deliver when it surfaces. And if you can’t justify the meeting publicly you should probably rethink whether the meeting is worth having in the first place. Hoping and praying that it might not come to light is not a viable strategy.This last point is important – there are enough campaigners who try to deligitimize the concept of advising government. Companies have every right to deal with their government and they must be very aggressive in defending that right. Isn’t it funny how the campaigners don’t trust big corporations unless that corporation is called the government.
  • Public affairs has always been a mix of who you know and what you know. With the greater push to transparency I think the emphasis is heading to the latter.In Canada, former designated public officers are forbidden from lobbying for five years. This means they can’t just pick up the phone and arrange meetings with their former colleagues. Again, it’s not perfect, and only the naïve would think it doesn’t still happen. But it has fundamentally changed the game.There are some ways companies can embrace look to the opportunities.One of the things we started doing in the PMO was to make more of the PM’s consultations with business leaders public events – we would use the meeting as a chance to deliver an economic message and then supplement that message by putting out one or two of the stakeholders out to speak with media following the event. Our interest was to make the PM look engaged on the economy and the stakeholders used the opportunity to promote themselves. We would also make sure to sync our efforts on social media – by including twitter handles of organisations or individuals that we met with in our tweets we would gain exposure to their audiences and build our own audiences up in the process.And companies should definitely look at this as an opportunity. You will have to be more creative in your approaches to government – some of the best pitches to government were one minute issues videos or animations. Of course, these are tactics – nothing will compensate for having a good strategy.
  • Which leads me to my main point – one of the most pernicious manifestations of reputation issues are competence issues.If a government is losing the competence war – like Mr. Obama is doing right now following the fumble on Syria and the botched rollout of Obamacare – then your chances of building a relationship and advancing your agenda decreases.Companies have to weigh the full range of factors before engaging with government. They need to have a full and fair understanding of context.And we should remember that it works both ways, of course. The government isn’t looking for you to be one of their reputational issues, so govern yourselves accordingly and keep your noses clean.And if you play your cards right – a government in crisis can provide an opportunity, provided you have a good relationship with them.

Building Winning Relationships By Andrew MacDougall MSLGROUP Building Winning Relationships By Andrew MacDougall MSLGROUP Presentation Transcript

  • Building Winning Relationships “Invaluable Reputation” – Dec. 10, 2013 Andrew MacDougall, MSLGROUP London
  • Overview + Context + Building blocks for partnership + The role of transparency Building Winning Partnerships – December 10, 2013
  • 01 - Context + Budget pressures + Reputation issues + Need for partnership Building Winning Relationships – December 10, 2013
  • Context – Budget Pressures 4
  • Governments are facing reputation issues 5
  • Be careful with your partnerships! 6
  • Governments are facing reputation issues 7
  • Because it’s facile 8
  • Reputation and Competence 9
  • 02 – The Building Blocks for Partnership + + + + Build understanding Speak the language Reciprocate Plan carefully Presentation Title – Date
  • Build Understanding Government ≠ business Start small and build up – Don’t walk in and ask for the moon Extreme cases make bad law – Don’t start in crisis (if you can avoid it) Be clear in your expectations – What are asks on each side? Building Winning Relationships – December 10, 2013 11
  • Speak the Language Speak politics – Put yourself in government shoes Speak to motive – What problem does it solve – for them No surprises – Governments can take bad news but don’t blindside Building Winning Relationships – December 10, 2013 12
  • Reciprocity 13 All relationships involve give and take Build capital – Offer support on tangential issues Remember the words “thank you” Building Winning Relationships – December 10, 2013
  • Plan Carefully Government can be big, dumb, slow Add your voice to the debate – Prepare the ground Be agile – Be ready for opportunity Building Winning Relationships – December 10, 2013 14
  • 03- The Role of Transparency + Risk management + The new normal (Snowden and social media) + Opportunities for creative approaches Building Winning Relationships – December 10, 2013
  • Risk Management Government moving to transparency – Lobbyist registries etc. More voices – Rise of social media More threats Lower threshold for “news” – More demand for content Building Winning Relationships – December 10, 2013
  • The New Normal Transparency is not a fad – Technology forces it Hold to higher standard – Be prepared to explain Defend legitimacy at all costs – Gov’t doesn’t have monopoly on ideas Building Winning Relationships – December 10, 2013
  • Time to Get Creative Who you know vs. What you know – Pendulum shifting Use transparency to your advantage – Build audience More opportunities – Embrace the new channels Building Winning Relationships – December 10, 2013
  • 04 – Canada-EU Trade Agreement Case Study Presentation Title – Date
  • A model partnership 20
  • Case Study – Canada-EU Trade Agreement Trade a priority – Savvy partners knew context Complicated story to tell – Needed third party validation Went with trusted partners – Relationships paid off Building Winning Relationships – December 10, 2013 21
  • To Summarise 22 Know the context and the constraints it places Keep your nose clean Build understanding Think politically, plan carefully Give as well as take Transparency is the new normal Embrace creativity Building Winning Relationships – December 10, 2013
  • MSLGROUP.COM @mslgroup