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23 March 2020

262: Engagement is still needed but pick your issue carefully

The government is rightly focusing on doing all it can to fight the spread of the coronavirus but it won’t get everything right all of the time. There is a case for public affairs and engagement but think through the risks and pick the issue carefully.

As I discussed in last week’s blog, there are a range of challenges involved in any communications during this difficult time. However, the government is extremely busy issuing guidance, offering support and needing help.

For most organisations, now is not the time for involvement. For the government to hear about issues that are probably largely irrelevant to the current crisis simply risks relationships and reputations. Anyone of any level of seniority across the government, politically and the civil service, will be focused on the current crisis (and that is without the added complication for many working from home). They simply do not have the time or the inclination to deal with matters outside of that.

There are, however, always exceptions.

There is the very practical support that the government is looking for vaccines and ventilators but any more technology based solutions to the crisis will doubtless be listened to as well.

But critically, there is the detail of the work the government is doing to support workers and sectors, as well as the help they need from a range of organisations, not least local authorities, to consider. This is being pulled together at a speed largely unknown. There also isn’t a playbook that anyone can turn to. So, in essence, much of the policy is being devised on the hoof. Mistakes will be made.

So in these areas, engagement is very much encouraged. The sectors themselves have to make sure the policies work and can deliver. That means pointing out to government where weaknesses or flaws lie.

In addition, some sectors feel it necessary to make sure that they are not forgotten about when the government is thinking about who to support. This type of championing is often led by membership and representative bodies, partly because they can speak with a collective weight of numbers and partly because it keeps the names (and reputations) of the individual companies away from the spotlight.

So think about:

  • is my issue directly related to the health issues?
  • is my issue related to the economic support being put in place by the government? and
  • does my issue impact on the continued operation of day-to-day society?

If the answers you are coming up with are ‘no’ then hold fire, at least for the time being.

Even constituency MPs will be thinking more about their local communities and will be contacted by companies, as well as charities who often deliver frontline services, whose very future will be on the line. You would have to be extremely confident that your issue is up there in terms of importance to think about contacting them at this stage.

That doesn’t mean do not do anything. Instead, think about planning for the future and how you will best secure your share of voice in what will be an extremely crowded marketplace from September onwards. All those postponed meetings, launches, conferences etc will be aiming to take place then. Use this time to reflect on your progress to date and think about conducting an engagement audit. This will put you in a much better position for when things start being normal again. All that engagement that hasn’t taken place will look to start again after the presumed summer recess. This will all be over at some point but that won’t necessarily make engagement any easier.

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