When Communications and Government Relations Clash

Your internal teams are squabbling. Your company’s leadership is determined to avoid a Game of Thrones-style pitched battle. Some examples:

  • Communications is fighting with government relations over who does what for an upcoming round of Congressional testimony.
  • Finance is in a tizzy with investor relations about the messaging for your next quarterly earnings call.
  • Legal is sending not-so-veiled threats to marketing concerning claims they plan to make about your new offering.

To some extent, there is a natural tension between various departments. That can, when channeled properly, prove cathartic and creative. Yet when the name calling begins and turf wars ensue, the C-suite must step in to referee.

Beyond the immediate kerfuffle lurks a larger problem. These skirmishes make collaborating to achieve your business goals extremely difficult. Your company’s communications involve more than the messages you send to your customers, audiences, and elected officials. Your reputation and your business and public policy goals stand to suffer if you fail to persuade these sometimes disparate interests to play nice together.

Let me give you an example from my days heading up the communications shop in an association. Our leaders were regularly invited to testify on Capitol Hill. In the past, the government relations staff had charge of the entire affair. This made sense to some degree as they were the issue experts.

Here was the problem. While they were all good thinkers and writers, their focus was on a very narrow audience: Members of Congress and their staffs. And that’s fine. Every sophisticated organization needs such capabilities. However, the technical language they used made no sense for a broader audience. Indeed, it was no doubt above the heads of many members of Congress sitting on the dais during the hearing.

So we struck a deal. Give us in the communications shop the five-minute oral statement and the Q&A period. This process really fast forwarded our entire testimony strategy. We in communications ensured more capable and confident witnesses. The government relations folks played to their strengths by putting together the formal, written testimony and advising on issues of substance.

I strongly encourage you to try out this approach when you testify before policymakers. Success depends upon your communicators’ ability to write. They should, after all, be the best writers you employ. If they are not up to the job, you have two choices: 1) Get rid of them and hire more capable individuals or 2) farm out the drafting of the oral statement and Q&A preparation to a consultant experienced in such matters.

Wise C-suite leaders are always on the alert for this lack of cooperation among their department heads. That said, wise communications and government relations executives should stand prepared to alert their top leadership when such quarrels threaten the enterprise.

Look for ways to foster collaboration as a matter of routine. Here are some concrete ideas:

  • Make sure your communications team works hand-in-glove with government relations as the former drafts the oral testimony for your witnesses.
  • Suggest that investor relations coordinate with communications as they prepare the messaging for future earnings calls.
  • As you prepare for potential crises, instruct your legal team to consult with communications; this will allow you to stay away from any confusing legalese jargon when reaching out to your public while at the same time preserving your legal protections.
  • Offer your communications department as a resource for other lines within your company. They can prove to be a good sounding board and trusted advisor when developing strategy throughout the organization.
  • If you work for an association, make sure your membership staff brings in their communications colleagues to ensure your recruitment campaign materials are consistent with your overarching messages.

Stay alert for these types of situations that you can turn to your advantage when spats arise between departments in your business. Life at work will become so much more pleasant and productive.