Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer…

Posted by: on Dec 17, 2018 | No Comments

Friends and opponents can both be critically important to the success of a public affairs campaign. So how best should you think about these audiences?

Potential allies for a campaign can often be given a huge amount of attention but the role of opponents is often less well thought through. Yes, supporters can reinforce messages and offer a strong collective voice when speaking to government, but opponents can just as easily derail a campaign. So think about them and what they need.

  • Who are they? – who are the likely opponents to your scheme and do you need to worry about them? Do they exert any influence with the policy-makers you need to engage with and what is their reputation like?
  • The arguments – what are the lines that are likely to be used against you? Can you do anything to undermine them in advance or do they simply need to be rebutted during the course of the campaign?
  • What has been said before? – it is rare to ever have a completely new political idea, most are based on previous initiatives. In that case you can look back over what has been said before and by who. This gives you the raw materials to build your campaign on. If the issue is being revisited then the assumption is that it failed last time. So what worked, what didn’t work? Fundamentally why did it fail and what do you need to do differently this time around?
  • Assume the worst – you should never start from the position that everyone will agree with you, there will always be opposing points of view (not least from the Treasury on financial groups…!).You should never assume that you are going to get a ‘free hit’. Instead, start from the position that your issue will be briefed against.
  • The tactics – in a similar way to thinking about the messages that will be used against, consider the tactics as well so that you can be prepared for them. Are those standing against you likely to use the media, campaign through Parliament or pursue a more low-profile approach? Think about what you would do if you were in their shoes.
  • Can you head them off? – it may be possible to work with opponents to at least neutralise their position. This can lead to better policy and, when it comes to dealing with government, makes it more likely that they will agree. If they know that you have worked with opponents and have their ‘agreement’ then it makes their life much easier!

But your (potential) friends needs careful consideration as well. If possible, your allies should be lined-up in advance but they too need to be aware of the potential approach of opponents and the ‘attacks’ that they could face as well. You can’t risk friends melting away should the going gets tough. That is worse than having no friends at all. So prepare friends fully in advance.

You cannot allow room for opponents to divide supporters, or to show up weaknesses or inconsistencies. So brief supporters and keep them close, well-briefed, throughout a campaign.

If supporters are to face challenges from opponents then it is even more important that they are committed to the campaign and that you have been clear in explaining your ‘pitch’ to them. That needs to include the importance of the issue to them and why they should support it. That might not, of course, be the same as your own reasons. You may also need to give them activities around the campaign which could mean ceding some control, giving them some level of independence. This is all part of knowing what makes them tick not only to gain support but also to bind them in.

Think carefully about potential partners and supporters for a campaign. Getting as many friends together as possible may sound like an attractive proposition but if any have skeletons in their closet then that just gives opponents lines to use against you. Working with them may not be wrong but it should be planned for, the risk considered, mitigation measures put in place and the relationship defended.

Think about friends through the prism of the views of your opponents. Do not just congratulate yourself on collecting as many friends as possible.

Your opponents can be even more important than your friends.