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The FiscalNote Executive Institute hosted a virtual roundtable discussion, “How Government Affairs is Navigating Policy and Advocacy in a Digital World” with Omar Vargas, Global Head of Government Affairs at 3M, Nicole Collier, Senior Director, Corporate & Government Affairs at Nestlé; and Mike Manatos, President of Manatos & Manatos. The discussion was moderated by Chris Lu, FiscalNote Senior Strategy Advisor and former Obama White House Cabinet Secretary on Dec. 10, 2020.

Chris Lu

Nicole Collier

Omar Vargas

Mike Manatos

The panel focused on the challenges and opportunities of building relationships using digital communication during the pandemic and the advantages of having strong networks in place prior to COVID-19. Here are some key takeaways:

The pandemic has created opportunities for companies to tell their story and engage stakeholders in new, innovative ways

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a multitude of challenges for government affairs professionals who are used to making their case through face-to-face interactions. However, this new environment also provides opportunities to tell a company’s story in different ways. Whether it’s developing a new product to address the global public health crisis, expediting production of PPEs, or taking new safety measures to protect employees, companies are highlighting to policymakers how their work serves a broader, public interest.

A staple of D.C. is political fundraising events. Now that these events have moved online, they have proliferated, which can be challenging for government affairs professionals to attend (and afford) all of them. One upside is that fundraisers are able to schedule more events than before and tap into a larger group of donors. When it comes to charitable fundraising events, virtual events can be enhanced with on-demand, emotive videos that provide more creative control over quality messaging and delivery.

Fly-ins have become much more inclusive in this new environment. With virtual fly-ins, organizers can include company executives or trade association members who wouldn’t normally have the time to step away for a few days and come to D.C. The resulting conversations can be more substantive and less about participants going over their talking points.

One-on-one, highly personal outreach (texts, phone calls, private chats on Zoom) is cutting through the noise of emails

The pandemic has demonstrated that government affairs professionals who took the time over the years to maintain and strengthen relationships are in much better position to reach people virtually. Being able to track down a key staffer is much easier when a lobbyist can cut through email inboxes and text a staffer directly. But this also creates disadvantages for new lobbyists just getting started in Washington who haven’t established these networks.

Whether it’s a virtual networking breakfast or a Zoom holiday party, government affairs professionals need to be creative in maintaining relationships with fellow professionals at other companies or firms. While there’s no substitute for meeting someone in-person over drinks or running into them in the hallway of a congressional building, a quick private message in a Zoom chat can help re-establish a connection with a colleague who might have a useful nugget of information about a pending piece of legislation.

Interacting with policymakers over the phone can lead to more opportunities to engage them and get their full attention. It’s always important to press forward only on truly important policy issues, while deferring other less relevant issues for a later time.

Focusing on cooperation instead of competition is key to keeping communication going during the pandemic

While companies are competitors in the marketplace, many are sharing information with one another through informal networks. Doing virtual events on behalf of an industry where different companies can talk about their work is a great way to team up and share knowledge effectively with key audiences. Many government affairs professionals are open to lending each other a hand, as it often opens the door to new relationships.

When it comes to in-person contact, set guidelines about what’s non-negotiable in terms of social distancing and safety for your teams

Some lawmakers are insisting that government affairs staff meet with them in person. Employee health, safety and confidence should be the top priorities in determining whether these meetings make sense. Even if government affairs staff are comfortable meeting in person, it’s critical to determine whether appropriate safety protocols will be followed.

What policy issues will predominate next year in Washington?

  • Ensuring the health and safety of employees in a COVID-19 environment
  • Economic recovery, infrastructure, and tax policy
  • Restoring U.S. relationships with our allies

Related resources:

23 Pros Share Their Tips for Virtual Lobbying and Advocacy, FiscalNote

New Congress, New Problems, FiscalNote