Have the Politicians Left the Room? Understanding the Challenges of Engaging with Political Audiences

Posted by: on Jun 9, 2023 | No Comments

Engaging with political audiences can often feel like an uphill challenge for those seeking to make an impact. Even when an event seems directly relevant, politicians may not always want to take part. Why can it seem like they have left the room?

Recently, I had the opportunity to participate in a DKUK conference on decarbonising the industrial value chain. During this event, I was asked to share my insights on why politicians may not want to take part in such crucial discussions. This blog is based on my opening comments.

Understanding the challenges

When considering the issue, we need to think about the role of politicians but also reflect on our own role as well.

The reality is that politicians often do not do much, if any, heavy policy lifting. In detailed policy discussions, you need to be speaking to the civil servants, the policy officials. They deal with the details. The absence of politicians from the room may not matter be as significant as it may initially seem. In fact, having an MP in the room who claims to be in ‘listening mode’ can imply that they have nothing substantial to contribute.

At the current time, it does not help that there is a General Election approaching. Long term thinking is never a strength of government so we have a collective challenge to promote it. We have to consider raising the public profile of the issue, ensure that we are talking to the right parts of government and to showcase the efforts of others to instil the necessary reassurance. At the moment, we all need to be working to get issues and ideas into the manifestos being written by the parties at this very moment.

Some of the issues involved around the supply chain are quite technical so we need to think about our language, lowering the barriers to entry to policy discussions, removing the jargon and clearly showing what the implications are, not least for an MPs’ constituents. The more localised and relatable our messaging, the stronger the resonance with our target audience.

That reminds us that we are competing for the limited attention and time of any politician. We have to stand out in our policy engagement. You have to make the most of the evidence, data, experience that you have. This approach grabs their attention and encourages them to listen.

And we have to give them the ideas about what needs to happen. Solutions are the name of the game. 

And there is increasingly no detaching reputations from good engagement. Effective engagement is intrinsically tied to reputations. Politicians will only align themselves with a company, a sector, a senior leader if there is no potential reflected damage on them. Potential damage means lost votes. That is why practices such as ‘greenwashing’ can have severe consequences.

The backdrop of the next election is the ‘cost of living’ crisis. That can put political audiences off from getting involved in issues that may be portrayed as increasing costs, even if only in the short term. The reality is that companies, such as those in the energy sector, are facing low levels of trust and poor reputations. All these factors compound the challenges of constructive engagement. We need to think through that prism because it gives us an understanding of one of our key audiences, politicians.

Sometimes, you may need to be robust with these audiences as well. Changes to, for instance, the incentives to buy electric vehicles appeared counterproductive to many. There would be an argument for calling that out.

The approach

The reality is that businesses need to engage day-in, day-out and if you want to influence the policy agenda. Public affairs needs to be central to your communications. Otherwise, you will simply have to live by the consequences of political decisions that you have chosen not to try to influence.

Navigating the complexities of engaging with political audiences requires perseverance and a strategic approach. By understanding the challenges, tailoring your messaging, and actively participating in public affairs, we can make a tangible impact on the policy agenda and help to shape the future.