It seems no sector of business and social life has been left untouched by the digital revolution. Policy advocacy (lobbying and all its cousins) has been sometimes slow to evolve, but the tools are in place to help small-to-medium sized companies compete in the digital advocacy arena.
A company’s government relations program is built around relationships. This is true if you’re a Fortune 500 company or a two-person startup. Influence can’t exist in the absence of relationships, so the key is to use technology to help you initiate and develop relationships, increase your influence and advance your policy objectives through the process. The objective is not to develop the most innovative web site, or to produce the most entertaining blog or podcast, or even to author the most thought-provoking content. The objective is to build the relationships that will earn you the influence to affect public policy.
The Digital Toolbox
We’ve fallen in love with all things digital. We have digital watches, digital entertainment devices, digital phones, digital televisions and, of course, the Internet, which is a home to all things digital. Digital is fast, cheap, ubiquitous, convenient and …that’s what makes it such a difficult tool to use effectively. Using digital tools to cut through the clutter and begin the conversations necessary to develop relationships is getting harder every day.
Digital tools are, above all else, tools. Like all tools, not each one is equally effective. Chain saws are wonderful tools, but are totally useless if you need to insert a screw. Great tool, wrong job.
Let’s take a look at the toolbox and see how we might use each tool to advance our objective: to develop the relationships that will help us achieve our policy goals.
Content, broadly defined, is anything that tells a story that helps you achieve your objective. It can take the form of written word, audio, video, email, or any storytelling device that communicates information the audience will find interesting and helpful. Content marketing didn’t arrive on the scene with the advent of the Internet. Rather, it’s been around for as long as humans have communicated. Magazine articles, public speeches, product descriptions, catalogs, demonstrations, anything and everything that can help move a decision maker toward the decision to take the action you desire. Content is the “what”, while the delivery tools and media are the “how”.
Depending on your product or service, the content you create and distribute needs to achieve one overarching goal; move the intended audience toward taking an action in your favor. Anything that competes with that or detracts from that needs to be ruthlessly discarded.
Content planning takes time and careful thought. If anything, we tend to think too broadly. When we consider our objectives in the area of government relations, we often settle for rather vague statements, such as “we want to develop a circle of public officials who will help us shape healthcare policy that will be compatible with our corporate goals.” Sounds laudable, but not nearly precise enough.
A better objective might be “to eliminate barriers to the reimbursement for our product or service in public programs, such as Medicare and Medicaid”. That’s much better, but could probably be defined even more precisely. The idea is that once we have a precise objective for our government relations efforts we can begin to develop content that moves our audience toward that goal. This is a major achievement and once the hard work is done, the digital toolbox can be employed to move us toward success.
The Target Audience
Once we have a tightly-defined objective, we need to develop a list of the people who can help us arrive at the outcome we want. The final decision may be made by an official at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) or by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or some other federal agency. Alternatively, the policy change you need may only be possible by a change in the law. In either event, your core group of allies should be those to whom you are a constituent. Your town supervisor, city council member, your mayor, your state representative, state senator, member of the US House of Representatives and your US Senators all fit this description.This is the “low-hanging fruit” of public officials who have a natural interest in seeing you succeed. Think of these people as powerful advocates who can act as surrogates in the policy arena. It’s amazing to see how many small companies don’t even know who their member of Congress or their US Senators are. Once you’ve identified them, begin your outreach campaign.
Not all your best tools are digital. In fact, the best way to open doors to your key allies is to invite them to come to your facility, meet your people and learn about what drives your company. Once you’ve done that, regular follow-up is key. Use your digital tools to do that.
Keep your key allies up to date by publishing news about your company, your key milestones, funding rounds, clinical trials, key collaborations and the key drivers of your value proposition. Make sure you include key staff in the communication. Your member of Congress may not read everything you publish, but make a point to keep the district director engaged, as well as health staff and senior members of the legislator’s office. You want them fully familiar with your enterprise when it comes time to ask them to help. Email news is an efficient way to engage them in this effort. Also, email analytics can let you know who is opening and clicking through your messages. That’s valuable information to have.
White papers are normally comprehensive documents that dive deep into a subject on which your company has expertise. For instance, your therapeutic area of research, your marketplace (e.g., long term care), your service market (pediatric patients, elderly, COPD patients). Publishing information that is comprehensive and readable helps establish your company as a leader in its field.
Video is the new superstar of digital communication. Video engages us in a story, feeds our need to connect emotionally, and creates an impression that is difficult to match. Companies are using videos in innovative ways to break through with their stories.
Webinars are an effective way to inform an audience with visual material, live engagement and personal involvement. Not everyone can engage live, but webinars can be archived for later review.
Cost Effective Government Relations
Digital tools won’t win the day in the public affairs arena, but they can be powerful ways to ensure that key external stakeholders are kept engaged, informed and increasingly enthusiastic about your company’s vision. These people have a reason to want you to be successful. Making the effort to reach out, make contact and keep them involved in your story will create a cohort of friends that will be willing to help you navigate the public policy process as the challenges begin to mount.