Seven Changes Affecting Government Relations During The Pandemic

A recent report from the Public Affairs Council found that the pandemic is changing the way advocacy is done. With more organizations saying advocacy is critical now, associations need to focus on virtual engagement and standing out from the crowd.

Due to the uncertainty caused by the pandemic and the role government can play in providing relief, most organizations feel their government relations department will be critical in helping them managing political risk, according to a May 2020 report [pdf] from the Public Affairs Council (PAC).

However, the pandemic changed the way GR professionals do business. If your association wants to manage political risk well moving forward, experts have noted seven changes that you’ll need to keep up with to make the most of your advocacy efforts.

More member engagement. “What I’m hearing from clients and others across the board—I don’t care what industry—is [that] they are getting more virtual engagement,” said Amy Showalter, president of the Showalter Group. She noted that the easiness of virtual meetings has made them popular for members wanting to help out.

More interactions. Doug Pinkham, PAC president, said some GR professionals can have more interactions with legislators due to the increased use of video. “[Lawmakers] have discovered, ‘I can do five of these and not have to leave my office and even my home, and it’s so much more efficient to hear what constituents care about,” Pinkham said.

Pinkham mentioned a friend who advocates for those in the medical device field who needed help ensuring technicians who service critical hospital machinery could travel freely state-to-state back when many states were locked down. “He told me, ‘I have talked to more governors in the past three weeks than in my entire career.’”

Virtual interaction management. While going virtual allows more interaction, managing that interaction requires a slight change in skills.

“We have to make sure we are doing small things like, if you have a meeting, that you are cueing off each participant so there isn’t dead air,” Showalter said. “You need to toss it to them. You have to be more animated, have more vocal inflection, and your visual vocabulary has to be just as good as it is in person.”

Additionally, just as GR professionals give members training ahead of fly-ins, it’s important to provide tips prior to any virtual meetings. “We think everyone knows to be nice online,” Showalter said. “I would challenge people to go online on any [social media] portal and get into a public policy discussion and see how nice they are.”

Standing out is important. While virtual allows more interaction, Showalter says that makes it more challenging to be noticed. “How do you stand out in that noisy environment?” Showalter asked. “I think a big piece of that is having real people the lawmaker knows. The groups who have the good digital presence and advocates on the ground that the lawmaker is already familiar with are going to have a big advantage.”

Only COVID-19 matters. Pinkham noted one challenge advocates are going to face this year is that everything is focused on the pandemic, so any other needs will likely fall by the wayside. “For the rest of this year, federal and state governments will be reluctant to consider policy issues that don’t relate to COVID-19,” he said. “If it’s off subject, it won’t be effective. Timing is everything.”

Budgets are important. Although the report noted that more than half of organizations placed more value on GR, budget cuts are a concern. Showalter said it’s important for GR professionals to show the value of their advocacy efforts.

“A lot of government relations professionals are on autopilot and don’t think through the things they’ve prevented. They’re not quantifying and reporting on them,” Showalter said. “They need to start talking about it. They need to think through everything they have worked on, draw the connections—how their team is involved in making it happen, craft that narrative, and make sure that is communicated to the leaders.”

Old ways are transitioning. Pinkham said the pandemic-forced move to virtual is changing how the business is done. Too many movies present GR as backroom deals and golf course diplomacy. With in-person meetings reduced, that’s changing. “It’s much more about business, and maybe that’s not a bad thing,” Pinkham said. “Lobbying is becoming less about backslapping and friendships and more about policy. We’re moving from an era of network lobbyists, who make a living on who they know, to knowledge lobbyists, who make a living on what they know.”

What advocacy changes has your association seen since the pandemic? Share in the comments.

(Ivan-balvan/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Rasheeda Childress

By Rasheeda Childress

Rasheeda Childress is a former editor at Associations Now. MORE

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