Account Director Ben Blackburn, one of Freshwater’s team attending this year’s Conservative and Labour party conferences, on why a strategic approach is best
For many organisations, attending the autumn political party conferences is a must. Certainly, Freshwater will have a team on the ground at the Labour and Conservative conferences. But given the substantial cost of corporate delegate passes and accommodation, how can you ensure you get the most out of attending?
Clarity of purpose
It is vital to be clear on why you are attending and what you seek to get out of doing so. If you struggle to clarify your objectives, can you justify your investment?
Are you there to network and gather intelligence? The fringe events will be your main stomping ground. There tend to be particular themes which dominate each season - Brexit being the obvious example for 2017 - so try to make sure the issue you are interested in is properly represented before you commit.
Be proactive and minimise commercial risk. The fringe listings are not published until after the window closes for buying your pass so try reviewing last year’s listings and contacting the organisations likely to be represented again to see what they have planned.
Navigating the hundreds of fringe meetings can be a difficult and confusing process, particularly if you relying on winging it on the day. Unless you spend serious time reviewing and auditing the fringes in advance, you are likely to be running madly from one to the next. Good for your step count but perhaps not for your business objectives.
Fortunately, the political parties are your friends and publish fringe guides in different formats at least one week in advance.
Are you there to raise your organisation’s profile? Hopefully you will already have considered taking an exhibition stand well in advance. If you decided against or have missed the boat, what else can you do? If you have budget or an authoritative spokesperson to deploy, contact fringe organisers to see if they have sponsorship opportunities or speaking slots and panel positions available. Failing that, produce some hard copy collateral and take it around to as many meetings as possible. If you are lobbying against the party’s policy, could some form of stunt be effective? Guerrilla tactics sometimes work the best.
Are you there to meet with political decision makers? Be sensitive to how your targets will be arranging their diaries. Many MPs will not confirm their diaries until late on. Bear in mind that plenty of MPs don’t attend their conference at all, preferring to use the recess for constituency work.
If you are trying to meet ministers then don’t expect to get any success with a last minute approach, unless you have an unusually good existing relationship with their office. They will have a packed agenda so your approach needs to be timely and compelling.
A wider strategy
Attending the conferences must be part of a wider engagement and communications strategy. This will reap maximum benefits for your organisation. Rely on it being a one hit, and you risk losing any momentum earned and weakening relationships you managed to foster over the season.
Call in support
This is where a strategic communications consultancy like Freshwater can help. We can advise you on how to really make the most of your conference season investment and ensure that it is the cornerstone of a full strategy to meet your communications and wider corporate objectives.
Top 5 tips
1. Take a strategic approach with clear objectives
2. Start preparing early, well before the summer
3. Plan your days carefully - don’t wing it
4. If you do leave it too late to get your pass, have a look at what is happening outside the secure zone
5. Look after yourself - long caffeine-filled days bookended by breakfast meetings and drinks receptions at back to back conferences can take their toll and affect your performance
To speak to a public affairs consultant about getting the most out of your attendance at party conferences, and your wider stakeholder engagement and political communications strategy, call 0207 067 1595 or email firstname.lastname@example.org