by Alistair Nicholas
September 12th, 2014

There is a general misconception about lobbying. That is, that the profession is made up of ex-politicians and former political staffers who act, at best, as door openers to current politicians and their staffers. In its worst permutation the perception is that these former politicians and staffers are bagmen to those in power.

In truth, the majority of people engaged in lobbying are in fact sophisticated professionals, rather than has-been politicians and past party apparatchiks. The lobbyist’s work is part science and part art. Lobbyists are usually trained in the law, economics or political science. And they usually have spent the early parts of their careers as journalists, policy analysts, political advisers, or as boffins in the bureaucracy.

What these individuals offer is an understanding of policy issues and government decision-making processes. They know how things get done in government and they know how to influence changes as policies or legislation flow through the system.

Successful lobbying campaigns are about much more than knocking on a politician’s door. That is part of it – but the smallest part. If that were all a lobbyist did we would be little more than glorified appointment secretaries.

A good lobbyist needs to understand the policy issues and explain why a policy or piece of legislation needs to be changed. The more sophisticated lobbyist will have engaged independent advocates such as academics and other experts to put forward their client or company’s case. And the best lobbyists will engage the media in their cause, particularly the opinion page writers. These days we also leverage social media channels like Twitter and Facebook to obtain grassroots support for campaigns.

Here’s a step-by-step process that we might go through with a client and the strategy and tactics that might be employed:

1.     Understand the issue – research the background to the issue to understand the arguments for and against a particular perspective.

2.     Messaging and outreach strategy – based on the understanding of the issue we would work with the client to develop their messaging and outreach strategy. Sometimes, especially for complex issues that require a “long-game plan”, the strategy might require much more than cruising the corridors of power at parliament house or a government department.

3.     Map the stakeholders – identify which politicians, government departments, and bureaucrats are key to a policy or legislative change and find out where they stand on the issue. This is done by reading speeches and articles they may have written but also by “intelligence gathering” by asking people who may know them what they know about the stakeholder’s position on the issue.

4.     Influence the influencers – identify non-stakeholders that might be able to influence the decision-makers. These might be backbenchers, parliamentary committee members, academics, and media commentators. We would usually map them in terms of degrees of separation from the decision-makers, sway they might have over the decision-makers, and stance on the matter at issue.

5.     Climb the hill programs – we would then take our clients to meet with politicians and bureaucrats that we are seeking to influence as well as with influencers such as backbenchers in parliament via a “climb the hill program”, which simply means a visit program to parliament house and relevant government departments to explain the client’s position on the policy or legislation.

6.     Influencer outreach – where necessary programs will be designed to get the influencers engaged and, hopefully, to support our client’s program. This might mean having academics and commentators pen opinion pieces for the media and speak on relevant TV and radio programs; or, it might mean holding seminars on the subject and inviting key stakeholders and media to attend.

The most successful lobbying campaigns – such as the one for seat belts in cars or the one by a drug company to make a vaccine that protects women against cervical cancer affordable and accessible – have been based on highly effective, strategic public affairs campaigns. This approach has and will always fare better than one that calls in political favours.

Alistair Nicholas is senior advisor, Government Relations, Public Affairs & Crisis Management Practice at Weber Shandwick Australia

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