Dean Russell: Politicians will pay attention if you give them a clear, simple message

It can be easy to get stuck in a bubble by assuming the rest of the world has the same passion for a cause as your staff and supporters, says the director of digital at Fleishman-Hillard

Dean Russell
Dean Russell

I'm less than a year into my time as a district councillor, but it's already providing key lessons for my job in communications, especially in relation to the third sector.

Having spent more than a decade in digital communications - running several campaigns that involved lobbying local politicians - I now find it fascinating to be on the receiving end. Perhaps it is some sort of communications karma.

One of the most important lessons I've learned about campaigning, especially in this sector, is that it can be all too easy to get stuck in a bubble by assuming the rest of the world has the same passion for a cause as your staff and supporters. When you are on the receiving end of a pile of letters, emails and the odd postcard, it takes something special to really grab your attention.

From my perspective, that something special can often be a clear, simple message and call to action. However, I have opened many very well-designed campaign letters that leave me confused as to what they want me to do - so, sadly, they don't get much more of my time.

It's not that I don't want to support every organisation that contacts me, but time really does become a scarce commodity when you're a councillor. For example, even in council meetings we are often limited to only two or three minutes for speeches, so we have to get to the point quickly.

When charities are targeting local politicians, especially at district, town or parish council level, they seem to forget that many of us have full-time jobs as well. This means we have to quickly become masters of prioritisation, otherwise we would drown in a sea of paperwork. So a request that is not from a resident and is not 100 per cent clear can get dismissed.

I often get asked how I find the time, but the reality is that it's not difficult when you are clear what you are trying to achieve and what constraints exist. Similarly, campaigns need to have clear objectives to be measured against, otherwise time is wasted and you don't know whether the results you achieve are the best possible. To make this easier, I have to make prioritisation part of my daily routine.

Prioritisation isn't just something for local politicians, though. It should be a critical part of charities' campaign planning too. With the increasing number of channels available to reach audiences, from Facebook to email and postal campaigns, you must decide whether to focus on one or two channels only, or else figure out how to get a small set of consistent key messages across them all. Difficult decisions both - failure to get them right often means failure to grab the target audience's attention.

Finally - and this is something I might regret writing - the best way to get a local politician's attention is by telephone. At the end of the day, we are only human, so a quick telephone conversation to introduce your organisation, cause and whatever it is you are asking for can be an invaluable way to begin a relationship. It also gives the politician the chance to ask questions there and then, rather than through lengthy email or postal correspondence.

So when it comes to targeting local politicians, keep it simple: be clear what you are asking for and remember they are often time-poor. They might want to help, so don't make it hard for them. By following these simple rules, you might just save yourself a lot of time, energy and money while getting the support you feel your cause deserves.

Dean Russell is director of digital practice at Fleishman-Hillard and a Conservative district councillor

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