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The value of government relations in a crisis

A crisis hits – a major electricity outage, a facility fire, contamination – something that impedes your ability to continue operating. Your first reaction is to deal with the operational issues, of course. Then your communications team activates – preparing a media strategy, activating internal communications, using your owned, earned and paid assets to get your message out.

Why is government relations (GR) important?

  1. Government is likely your regulator. Your incident may be an occupational health and safety, environmental, or consumer protection issue. If so, you will be working with them directly, but it’s important to involve your GR team early on so you can anticipate the government’s broader needs and get advice on how to engage government beyond the frontline regulatory staffers. Does the Minister’s Office or other ministries or agencies need to know? How do you get information to them?
  2. Elected government officials have needs. Local mayors, MPs, MLAS are community leaders. People look to them for leadership and response. Help them be successful with their electorate and the media by keeping them informed and preventing surprises. What about the Premier’s issues management team? Can you help them prepare for media scrums or Question Period? Government may not be impacted, but it’s important they hear the news directly from you.
  3. Increasingly, Incident Commands operate jointly with both companies and governments (including First Nations). At the very least, they may want a presence in your Emergency Operations Committee. This collaboration helps, but only if you really understand the full context. Your GR counsel can help you navigate what it means to be side-by-side with government in a crisis, just as NATIONAL did during the Fort McMurray wildfires.
  4. Your corporate reputation matters with government. Crises can be a time that either undermine or build your reputation and credibility with the public and stakeholders. Ensure that governments trust you more, not less, afterwards.

Best Practices:

  • Ensure your operational emergency response plans are informed by and include a crisis communications plan.
  • Include your GR counsel (internal or external). Ideally in the planning and training stages.
  • Know who to call. Develop stakeholder maps and outreach plans that include all possible officials (bureaucrats and elected officials) at all levels of government, including First Nations. And keep these updated.
  • When a crisis hits, activate your government outreach plan right away and share what you do know. Don’t wait until you have “all the information” or until government calls you. This opens the lines of communications and signals that you care about their needs.
  • Anticipate which issues will matter to government. Are you closing a major retail brand across the country – yes, this will likely come up in Question Period. Accident onsite at a major plant – yes, the local MP, Chief, MLA and Mayor will appreciate a call.
  • Share information. What are the facts and what will you be saying about the issue? Don’t make government sift through your website or news releases, or worse, the media coverage, to understand the issue.
  • Be strategic in your outreach planning. The CEO does not need to make every call. Some contacts can begin as emails, until you have time/information for a more detailed brief.
  • Follow up. Don’t assume those government contacts hear the outcome from other channels. Connect throughout the recovery stages.

——— Written by John Sparks, Senior Consultant and Tamara Little, Former Vice-President, NATIONAL Public Relations