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27 November 2017

199: Managing expectations

Across public affairs, managing expectations can be difficult but also highly necessary. Sky-high or unrealistic expectations will only lead to disappointment. They should be managed from the outset.

Too often when dealing with politics there is the belief that the issue only needs to be explained to them and then their position will change. But it just doesn’t work like that. Instead, politicians have to balance a range of sometimes conflicting interests, have their fundamental points of view and have that thing called ‘the electorate’ to deal with.

Public affairs is, therefore, also about explaining to those involved, especially senior management, what can and cannot be realistically achieved.

Here are a few of the usual unrealistic expectations:

  • ‘When the Prime Minister gets to know about this…’ – there will often be an assumption that Ministers should immediately be informed about the issue. But this has several significant drawbacks. Firstly, you may not have had any time to get your messages and approach in place and contact too soon will simply undermine you. Secondly, Ministers will ask if contact has taken place with relevant officials. So simply ‘going to the top’ could add delay and make you look amateur.
  • ‘We can defeat this’ – this can often be suggested in relation to Government Bills going through Parliament. But this is rarely the case. The simple Parliamentary arithmetic means that, usually, Government’s have majorities (sometimes working with other parties). So if it introduces a Bill, the Bill will progress. Instead, it may be about the more realistic option of an amendment to the legislation.
  • ‘We will use social media to get to them’ – alongside this, there will be talk of the issue ‘trending’ as if such a thing can simply be created. The reality is that social media is a campaigning tool alongside others. It can help target a message. It can assist in creating some interest and get people to take notice. But on its own it is not enough. So it has a potentially valuable role but as part of a campaign. Traditional tools should not be forgotten as well!
  • ‘Let’s go big on this’ – the idea that a big campaign is always necessary is not true. Instead, speaking to the right people at the right when they have a real influence is much more effective. It can also be that the politicians aren’t the ones with the real power over an issue. It could be more technical and more related to civil servants. A big campaign could help focus the minds of politicians but civil servants are generally more immune.
  • ‘The newspapers will want to know about this’ – truth is many issues simply do not make front page news. Even if it does then politicians rarely want to see the issue splashed across the media before you have talked to them about it. You have, in essence, make them look foolish in the eyes of the electorate before giving them a chance to do something about it. Many of the matters we deal with in public affairs can be quite technical and so do not naturally lend themselves to media stories.
  • ‘We need this change to happen now’ – if all the stars are aligned then change can happen quickly but this is not usually the case. Instead, a campaign builds over time, involves a number of audiences, potentially partnerships, allies and builds a groundswell of opinion. That takes time, effort and resources, not a quick call to the right person.

There, of course, always exceptions to these ‘rules’ but generally audiences, especially internal ones, need managing. Get this right for the outset and it will help in the long term, even if it may seem a little daunting at the outset.

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