Navigate politics: Finding your way through the maze

Image showing an arrow move through a maze.

Date posted: 28/11/2022

by Stuart Thomson

A fundamental of public affairs is knowing how to navigate politics. That means being able to understand and explain what is happening and what the implications could be for your organisation. But how do you go about navigating the political world, especially during turbulent times?

We need to be able to explain to our colleagues and other stakeholders what is happening. They look to their public affairs advisers or team for advice and insight. That has to be more than just picking up what the newspapers are saying. That means taking information gained through a variety of monitoring sources and adding value to it.

We are not just asked for advice because politics is interesting (although I believe it is!). We are asked because of concerns about the implications of change. What do policy changes mean? What are the implications of a reshuffle? Does a policy announcement really signify a change in approach? How do we navigate politics and the positions we find ourselves in?

In other words, understanding the political landscape is about managing political risk. Governments change laws, policies, taxes, and regulations; all of which have a direct impact on an organisation’s operations and even viability. Without public affairs support, they may be ill-prepared.

So, how can we best equip ourselves to navigate politics?

Monitoring – The fundamental building block of effective public affairs is knowing what is going on around you – in Parliament, across the media and on social media. Without this information, you cannot see the risks or opportunities. Without good monitoring, we are ill-prepared.

Talk to people – Draw on the insight of others, not least those from the audiences of most interest to you. If you want to know about how to navigate politics then talk to politicians. This means thinking about building your network from the start of your career. It also means knowing your stakeholders and being as close to them as you can be. Bearing in mind that political stakeholders change regularly, you need to keep on top of those changes and, if possible, be the first to react.

Take inspiration from others – You do not always have to have all the answers. Instead, consider what others in your sector, maybe even your competitors, are up to. This is not to suggest that you should copy them but you may need to react to them. If others have good insight, then do not be afraid to follow their lead. This means knowing what others are doing. Attend events, hear from speakers, and always be ready to learn. Prioritise those you have identified in your stakeholder mapping, see where sentiment analysis takes you, and use that to decide who to gain this type of information from.

Read and listen – Too often we can get stuck in our own echo chambers. The events we attend, the people we talk to and the sources we refer to can all look and sound like us. It is important to understand all forms of politics, which means being broad in our media consumption. Do not just listen to Coffee House Shots but take in the New Statesman as well and remain open to new sources of insight. Apply that broad-brush approach to newspapers and other media as well. Break out of your own echo chamber, it will help your navigation skills.

Direct involvement – This may be a more controversial suggestion than the others but I believe that being involved in politics really helps. It isn’t essential but it can certainly be an advantage and give an insider’s view. There are many forms that this involvement can take, from being an active member of a party to standing for office. The definition of ‘involvement’ can be broadly drawn, so it could include working with the media, think tanks, or an NGO. It all brings with it some additional understanding which can be useful.

Navigating politics is about understanding the systems, processes and people involved in politics, and it can often feel like a maze. Take the time to consider how you can be better able to lead a path – it is what colleagues expect and rely on.

Stuart Thomson

Stuart is a public affairs and communications specialist advising clients on their political and corporate communications, and reputation management. He has also worked on a number of high-profile media relations and crisis communications programmes.

Stuart is a CIPR Chartered PR Practitioner (Chart. PR) and an honorary research fellow at the University of Aberdeen. He is the author of several books including the recently published, ‘Reputation in Business: Lessons for Leaders’.

Stuart regularly writes and lectures on a range of business and political issues. He is an adviser to the Entrepreneurs Network (TEN) and a regular speaker and chair at conferences.


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