By Lara Lee Hullinghorst
Lara Lee Hullinghorst is our government relations partner and trusted consultant. She has more than 20 years of proven success in business development, client relations, government relations, business operations and project management. Based in Boulder, Colorado, she travels nationwide to service clients who need local and Washington, D.C. presence.
Whether organizations want to believe it or not, government has a profound impact on the way business is conducted. As a result, almost every organization requires a government relations arm, but one of the most common questions I receive is “what exactly is government relations?”
To me, government relations (GR) is about education — educating legislators about what your client does and what they need, ensuring they are aware of your client’s point of view. The other side of the coin is educating clients about legislation that may affect their business. From there, it’s about building relationships and advocating on behalf of clients. Essentially, GR is the branch of public relations that helps an organization effectively communicate with the government.
You might be asking yourself, “isn’t that just lobbying?” Of course not! Effective government relations goes beyond lobbying — it is a four-pronged attack. First, it’s about educating government officials about clients’ needs, and it is important to be able to explain points of view that run contradictory to your client’s perspective and prepare legislators to respond to these opposing points of view. Second, GR involves educating your client about legislature, challenges they may face and how that legislature and those challenges may play out for them. The third prong in the attack is tracking, or identifying existing legislation that could use amending — and there are many ways to accomplish this task. Finally, the fourth prong involves building relationships with government officials and advocating on behalf of your clients.
All four prongs are vital to the effectiveness of the attack and being proactive helps as well. There are companies out there that prefer to be reactive rather than proactive and zoom in whenever there’s a problem. While that’s doable, it tends to be a much less effective approach.
I believe that government relations and public relations go hand-in-hand and that if you don’t have robust and integrated PR and GR machine, then you’re putting your company at a disadvantage. When combined, PR can drive GR, enabling more effective outcomes.
For example, a client of ours was set to meet with some government officials about an issue that impacted their business. We felt the officials in question might have been holding a bias in favor of the client’s competitor and against our client. Through public relations outreach, we were able to secure an article in the local newspaper that ran on the day of the meeting and brought this potential bias to the legislator’s attention. Due to the PR effort, the conversation has since pushed in a positive direction for our client and they are now able to operate on a more level playing field.
A PR strategy that fails to incorporate the governmental aspect of communications creates a sizable gap and allows opportunities to slip through the chasm — things pass you by.
Lets say you’re buying a building, or looking at a long-term rental for your company’s headquarters. Without a government relations specialist, it might not occur to your organization that you may have been eligible to receive a tax incentive. What if a political policy you’re unaware of negatively affects your organization? Clearly, without a thorough understanding of the legislative process, opportunities to structure the outcome of laws that affect a business can be missed.
There are two ideal outcomes for organizations that employ a robust and integrated government relations strategy: advancing and protecting. Advancement could mean acquiring government grants or contracts, or a tax credit in a city, county or state offering that advantage. Protection typically involves defending organizations from ordinances, regulations and laws that are going to be harmful to business by having somebody advocate to kill that legislation.
While there are two ideal outcomes, success is not as sexy as it looks on West Wing or Scandal and as a result, people have a pre-conceived notion about what success and failure looks like in government. Unfortunately, government relations is much more mundane. Government is built to move at a deliberative pace, and legislation can be worked on for more than a year — another reason why it’s important to be proactive.
Remember that tracking part of the strategy? It’s not glamorous, but it is absolutely necessary. Many pieces of legislation pass without robust stakeholder input, and potential clients can find themselves accidentally in an unexpected, negative position. Often, legislators are open to a fix that doesn’t hurt a business.
During the session, it is imperative to track what types of legislation are going through the process, looking each week to see what pieces have been submitted by various legislators, what is getting on the calendar at the committee level, where the votes are coming in at that level and within the House and Senate bodies as wholes, etc. If there is legislation that could touch a client’s business (positively or negatively), keeping track of edits and progress is important so that, if there is something negative in the legislation that needs addressing (or adjusting), the client has informed representation, keeping them from getting caught behind the eight ball.
It’s rewarding to advocate and get clients what they want, or to protect a client from corporate harm, but if you’re not advocating, you get creamed. If you’re assuming government is going to do what you want without explaining to elected officials what you need, you’re never going to get what you want.
Additionally, it is almost inexplicable how much officials pay attention to the news and how they’re perceived — especially with the current social media landscape and how people are consuming news. Our congresspeople and elected officials at all levels of government get their information from their own echo chambers online and constituents have an opportunity to effectively influence elected officials.
That’s why the symbiotic relationship between government relations and public relations has become so important. When done together well, the benefits are magnified. Open communication between the PR and GR teams helps everyone do their jobs better at both ends and as a result, our clients are ultimately the beneficiaries of our relationship.