Faced with an ever-growing number of firms and professionals in the government relations sector, choosing the right advocacy strategy can be confusing.
Should you back the inside knowledge of an in-house team or turn to the specialisation and scale of third-party advocacy firms?
We break down the strengths of each, looking at when and how to best use them.
Most large organisations have an in-house advocacy team. Whether it's labelled government relations, public relations, corporate affairs or media and communications, they're all trying to showcase why their organisation's work is valuable and influence decision makers and the public.
In-house advocates project the public face of an organisation, provide continuity and bring organisational and subject matter expertise to the table. They fulfil valuable day-to-day advocacy functions: attending events and media engagements, overseeing internal communications and providing a link between internal and external stakeholders.
They are also invaluable in developing campaigns and strategy. Being across the inner workings and strategic goals of their own organisation, they're best positioned to make decisions and representations based on the organisation's interests and a keen awareness of what will and won't fly.
Usually taking the form of large firms such as Barton Deakin, Hawker Britton and GRACosway in Australia, third-party advocates can leverage broad networks and organisational reputation to provide the edge a campaign needs. Firms can specialise in particular industries and political leanings or provide a bipartisan, broad-based offering.
The biggest advantage of using external advocates is just that'”they're external to the organisation.
Staffers and MPs may not speak candidly to in-house staff, fearing they will hear only positive takeaways or be under pressure to get outcomes, leading to views being misunderstood or misrepresented.
Similarly, in-house advocates may be hesitant to raise sensitive issues that could jeopardise their relationships or reputation moving forward, or may simply not have capacity for new campaigns.
These are the main reasons it can pay to engage third-party advocates. MPs and staffers can interact more freely knowing a firm is being engaged to provide frank communication often on single issues or single campaigns, and relay information accurately back to organisations.
As a result, organisations can get reliable, discrete assistance with new campaigns or increased workloads, or simply avoid bogging down their in-house teams in contentious or taxing work.
Which to use?
For smaller organisations, it can be tempting to engage third-party advocates only when needed and throw advocacy work to other teams. Having dedicated in-house lobbyists on board, however, is crucial to long-term success and should be the foundation of any government relations strategy.
If an organisation is large enough it should leverage the expertise and strengths of both, particularly where an issue is fundamental to the organisation, a topic is beyond the in-house team's area of expertise, or a campaign needs that extra push to get it over the hump.
In these circumstances, turning to an external firm can help complement and enhance your advocacy, putting it head and shoulders above the rest.