25 March 2015

Telling the story is not enough. It has to be heard.

This morning, I received a phone call from a very frustrated client. “The government just proposed a very disappointing piece of regulation that threatens one of our key products. We were convinced that we had done all the right things to prevent this from happening. When a public consultation on the matter was opened months ago, we put our best scientists on it. They produced massive data and scientific arguments to underpin our position. We submitted hundreds of pages of evidence, pulled together at great cost and effort. To no avail, apparently. Is the government stupid, or what? Can you help us out of this mess with a PR campaign?”
Telling the story is not enough. It has to be heard.
The desperate man continued: “We learned that the person drawing regulatory conclusions from the input into the consultation doesn’t even understand the basics of science. How are we supposed to engage in a meaningful conversation with public authorities in those circumstances? My CEO is furious.”
The last bit of the rant seemed to confirm what a recent Harvard Business Review article highlighted. One of the three things CEOs worry about the most is shifting regulation and legislation. The other two are talent management and operating in a global marketplace.
To understand what happened, I contacted my friend Monique in the ministry. She has been involved in a lot of legislative preparatory work, so I guessed that she could shed a light on the situation. Monique: “We received over 500 submissions to the public consultation, some more useful than others. A colleague and I had just two weeks to formulate conclusions for our director. The minister wanted this matter dealt with quickly, she had the press on her back.” I responded, “But surely you carefully considered the elaborate and very well researched scientific input you received?” She said, “Frankly, since it was impossible for us to validate all those data in such a time frame, we organized all the information received in broad categories: for our intentions, against them, or new elements to be taken into account. We also checked where the submission came from and who we could trust.  We wouldn’t want to advise the minister to base her decision on sources that we never heard from.” I asked her, “Is it true that no scientific expert was involved at that stage?” She answered, “Well, we did consult with the ministry’s scientific advisors, and they told us that there was a lot of contradictory evidence in various reputable publications. Ultimately, we had to make a political choice.”
Our client was truly convinced that the story they had to tell political decision makers would be strongest when it carried all the knowledge that the brilliant people in the company could come up with. However, on the receiving end, nobody seemed to care, or wanted to take the time to plough through the vast documentation and the heavy spreadsheets full of complex formulas. In short, the message, however compelling, was not received.
This process can be frequently observed. Science and data do not necessarily impress policy makers. The company could have done a more convincing job by carefully analyzing the decision making process and the players involved at different stages, before deciding how to get their thoughts best across. Knowing the audience to which they wanted to speak could have helped craft a message that was more useful to the poor receiver of all the submissions to a public consultation. What was the policy maker looking for? Which message would resonate? What contribution would be welcomed?  Had the client asked those question earlier, he could have avoided the frustration of a fruitless endeavor.
In our public affairs practice, we craft and tell stories on behalf of our clients every day. Long working hours go into soaking up the client’s concerns during meetings and then boiling them down into position papers, press releases, and amendments to proposals. The texts are sent back and forth until the words can be agreed upon by the many corporate entities involved. The formatting requires some of our best ICT and graphic talent. Far less time is devoted to finding out who will receive the story. What the eyes of the addressee will actually see. What will penetrate the ears of the listener on the other side of the meeting table? 
To influence the outcome of a decision making process, it is key to understand what’s on the mind of the people we have to convince. Only then can we convey the message that will genuinely contribute to a helpful result.
Back to the client on the phone. I suggested that we should assess properly where the proposal was going. Was it finally adopted or were we talking about a first step in the procedure that involved parliamentary scrutiny and a vote? If we could find out what drives the members of parliament on the issue, there was probably still scope to repair the case. It would involve reformulating our arguments to make them meaningful for elected representatives who do not win the popular vote because of specific technical knowledge of an obscure matter. Briefing a few journalists would do no harm. Communications and politics are intrinsically linked. The honest exposure of the scientific facts in a language understood by the interlocutors and by a broader public could still change some minds.  Those were my suggestions.
“I’ve spoken to my boss,” the client said later in the day, “and he endorses every effort to put things right. Badly conceived regulation seriously affects our business. We owe it to the public decision makers to inform them properly and to make them aware of the consequences of their decisions. Thereafter, it is up to the politicians to decide.”
Thomas Tindemans
Hill+Knowlton Strategies, Global Public Affairs Practice Director

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