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HMC NEWS: From Waikato to Wellington: senior leaders lunch on government relations

Waikato business leaders gathered yesterday to discuss the importance of government relations and listen to a panel of experts on how to better engage with ministers and officials in Wellington.

The lunchtime panel discussion on “wooing Wellington” featured three government relations experts: Holly Bennett, director of HSB Government Relations; Sarah-Lee Crellin, former senior communications advisor for the Department of Internal Affairs; and HMC Communications senior strategic advisor Peta Goldsworthy.

“From a regional perspective, central government in Wellington can seem like a world away,” said Ms Goldsworthy. “Many companies and not-for-profit organisations know they should engage with elected representatives on a regular basis, but they don’t know how to get their foot in the door.”

It was part of the CRUNCH (Crucial Conversations Over Lunch) series put on by Hamilton public relations agency HMC Communications aimed at senior leaders, tackling topics that impact on them, no matter what industry they operate within. The 90-minute sessions, scheduled quarterly, are designed to help leaders navigate the pressures they face from sources outside their business.

Ms Goldsworthy said that getting in front of government should be a priority for many organisations, whether to advocate, influence policy or build networks with key ministers or government decision makers.  

“As a business leader, it can be hard to know where to start,” she said. “I’d advise starting with the end in mind: what business objectives are you aiming to achieve and how can a great relationship with government help you get there?”

Holly Bennett, director of HSB Government Relations, said “the need to build relationships with politicians is imperative,” but business owners often don’t know where to start. She saw lots of potential for Waikato businesses, especially those in the small-to-medium and start-up area, to better engage with central government.

“It is a myth you need to be in Wellington to connect with government,” said Ms Bennett.

She said that engaging with locally based Members of Parliament (MPs) was a good way to begin. She pointed to Tim Macindoe MP, Jamie Strange MP, David Bennett MP, and Hon. Nanaia Mahuta MP as a sample of the region’s local advocates.

“What is the one thing you can do today to inject government relations into your business? It is to go and begin connecting with these representatives,” said Ms Bennett.

She also recommended accessing publicly available information to find out what was happening in Parliament, especially if people scheduling meetings or events would like MPs to attend. The resources included Parliament’s free Virtual House app and the House Sitting calendar on www.parliament.nz.

She said that her pet peeve as a government relations advisor was people thinking they can seek out politicians to use as pawns.

“They are human beings first and foremost,” says Ms Bennett. “There is a misconception out there that government relations is something that happens in the back alleys or dark corridors of power. For me it’s all about creating long-term, robust and meaningful relationships.”

Sarah-Lee Crellin, who spent the previous seven years working in various government departments alongside prime ministers and government ministers, said Wellington and Waikato had different ways of doing things.

“There is something I call the ‘Waikato’ way and the ‘Welly’ way, and understanding the difference can help,” says Mrs Crellin. “Waikato has grown up and is full of passionate and exciting people, but sometimes there is a ‘she’ll be right’ attitude and businesses are humble. In Wellington we want a lot of quality detail to make decisions, plus if something is great we shout about it from the roof tops.”

She said that the typical working week in Wellington can be different to the regions, and it helps to understand that. “Fridays are not good days to contact people as everyone is trying to get caught up on what’s happened during the week. Monday is a planning day with meetings. So it’s mid-week when you should make contact.”

Mrs Crellin said it was important to understand what was happening in the news and the political realm. “Take a step back and think why it would be important to a Minister or government department? Is it a hot topic or something being talked about in the house? You are more likely to get cut through if it’s a hot topic at the time.”

Ms Goldsworthy stressed that government relations efforts need to align with the company’s wider communications and engagement planning, and that it’s a “long term game.”

With the recent launch of the Waikato Regional Economic Development Agency, Te Waka, it was an opportune time for the region’s businesses to engage with government. “We are well regarded in Wellington, and there are lots of exciting things happening in the Waikato region at the moment, so it’s a great time to think about engaging with central government.”

HMC Communications’ next CRUNCH event is on 21 November and the topic is: “Dos and don'ts for company leaders as brand ambassadors.”  Media intelligence firm, iSentia, will present their new Leadership Index, demonstrating how Australian and New Zealand leaders wrongly and rightly portray their brand through traditional and social media. 

To find out more, check out our CRUNCH page.

PICTURED ABOVE:  Peta Goldsworthy, HMC Communications, Sarah-Lee Crellin, Holly Bennett, HSB Government Relations