Face to face meetings with politicians, civil servants, and other political influencers are often the central elements of a public affairs strategy. These meetings, in many cases, are the culmination of a strategy that you and/or your clients have been building for weeks or months.
But before you walk into that meeting - a meeting that can have a crucial effect on your business - I think it's worth laying down a few groundrules that can help you be successful. After all, you've put in all the hard work to schedule the meeting. You want to make the most of the opportunity. Here's how:
Stay Positive - As a businessperson, you would not turn a meeting with a big client into an opportunity to complain about how terrible he is. The same is true for meetings with government officials. The most effective messages are positive, affirmative ones. Even if you are against a specific regulation or alteration, emphasize what you are in favor of and, even better, why it is in everyone's best interest! Make it easy for your counterpart to bring something concrete to their boss, rather than just complaining how much you complained.
No Ugly Babies - You'd never call a colleague's baby ugly. So don't tell the author of a proposed regulation that it's the stupidest thing you've ever seen. She may have been working on this issue for a long time. This is her professional ‘Baby’, so be careful about what you say. Nobody wants to hear that you think they've wasted the past 8 months of their life on a stupid proposal.
Align Your Messages - Use empathy to understand the motivations of the person sitting across from you: what their priorities are, who is putting pressure on them (including their boss!) and what arguments are likely to work. Present your key messages in a way that identifies you most closely with their priorities. You're trying to win an ally, and allies are those whose goals align. This begins, of course, with choosing the right person to meet with. But that's not the end of the story. It takes a bit of imagination, but can go a long way in helping you win friends.
Be the Expert - Offer yourself as a dialogue partner for future questions your partner might have, or volunteer to appear at hearings or conferences. Depending on the field, this can be an excellent opportunity to brand your company as a thought leader while also earning you a favor from your meeting partner. You might not be gaining anything concrete in the short term, but you are improving your reputation and creating longterm relationships with your counterpart.
Core Message - Before you walk into the meeting, make sure that you've come up with a list of 3-4 Core Messages that you'll discuss. Don't let yourself get carried away commenting about issues that are either not familiar to your counterpart, or are simply not important. Stick to what you know, because it's easy to tell when people have no idea what they're talking about. And language is important! Think about specific phrasing that will be effective in carrying your Core Messages.
Avoid the Hard Sell - People are selling to politicians all the time. They're expecting you to do it as soon as you walk through the door, and have already thought of all the ways they would like to say No. But there are ways to carry your agenda without resorting to the hard sell. Above all, think of what you have to offer: expertise, research, network.
There is no one-size-fits-all strategy towards leading successful face to face meetings. Every politician, department, business, and client is different. But these six tips can help focus your preparation and ensure that the meetings are worthwhile for both sides.