Lobby fodder

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Not all election candidates make it here
Not all election candidates make it here

This is an article by Paula Keaveney.

The first time I stood as a Parliamentary candidate, back in 1997, the final three weeks were the busiest I had ever lived through. Days rushed by with door knocking, debates, meetings, leaflet deliveries, events with supporters. It was definitely not the time to sit down and read a forest of glossy publications.

And yet those three weeks were also the busiest ever for my postman. Every organisation under the sun (it seemed) decided that was exactly the right time to send me their brochure on “a manifesto for dentistry” or “ten key points about the building trade”.

Since then, communications to candidates have shifted from the piles of paper to the avalanche of e mails. During my most recent campaign, as a candidate for Police and Crime Commissioner, my computer seemed to have nothing on it but lobbying e mails.

Now don’t get me wrong. It’s really important that people and organisations can lobby. And sometimes this is what raises an issue that’s been solidly ignored.

But I can’t help thinking that with an awful lot of it the timing is pretty awful.

I’ll say more about that later. But first here’s a query.

The art of political persuasion

Lobbying is about influencing decision makers. Zetter (2011) tells us that it’s “the art of political persuasion”.

Now as PR practitioners we know that working out who the target audience actually is is vital. So if we want to influence the Government, for example, we need to find out who that consists of. We might also want to influence opposition parties because of the role they can play in legislative pressure. We probably also want to get to backbenchers on the Government side because of their “pester power”.

What we don’t want to do is to spend time on people with no influence.

And that’s where the practice of lobbying political candidates can seem a bit strange.

Think about the maths for a moment. As long as there are more than two candidates in each contest (and some contests can have 12 or more), if you lobby candidates you will communicate with more losers than winners. The people with the power to make decisions will end up being a very small part of your pool.

So why do organisations do it? From my perspective it’s an activity that’s growing not just in volume of contacts but in the range of organisations taking part.

After the 2012 PCC elections I decided to ask some of the organisations involved about why they lobbied candidates. As expected there were several reasons, but chief among these was the feeling that candidates who don’t win now might win in the future (and so be influential) and that lobbying candidates was about influencing the wider political family. (There was also, with registered charities, the perceived need to look impartial which does of course mean contacting every candidate in the race).

Welcome to the political family

The “political family” approach seems the key point.

If an organisation sees a candidate not as a potential MP or MEP but as someone influential within a political family, then the effort appears to make more sense.

But it only makes sense if the timing is right.

Think about media relations for a moment. You increase your story’s sellability hugely by getting the timing right. We all know about “slow news days” and the Monday morning embargo. PR practitioners work to find the times when their target audience (in this case the journalist or editor) is most receptive.

So why do organisations persist in lobbying candidates at the very point when, because of the demands of running a campaign, they are the least receptive?

In our first-past-the post voting system, anyone interested in politics will know that there are some seats that are highly likely to change hands and a (sadly) larger group that are highly unlikely to. Political journalists know this which is why their features tend to concentrate on a relatively small number of battlegrounds.

Political parties know this too and will tend to select candidates for those key seats as early as possible in the cycle. What this means is that a list of key candidates who could be lobbied can actually be compiled a good year or 18 months ahead of polling day. (Political parties will always announce the results of their selections and a basic website hunt will glean a lot of information).

So the names of the potentially more influential individuals will be available earlier than those of the “doomed to lose”. I see no reason for organisations not to commence their candidate lobbying working from this shorter list. It would mean communicating to the target audience at a more receptive time while being able to focus more on those who may end up with power and who, by definition, are more hooked into the centre of their own party.

It’ll be interesting to see if, in 2015, the last minute rush to lobby is actually a longer spread out approach with more thought on both sides.

We have fixed term Parliaments now. This makes it easier for parties to plan but it makes it easier for lobbyists too. And if you make your contact when I am not dead tired, I may turn out to be someone who can work with you for years.