Events are a key component of public affairs and every public affairs professional needs to know how to ensure as many MPs and ministers as possible make the time to attend. Why?
- Events help you build relationships. The more politicians see you, the more they’ll recognise you and listen to what you say.
- Your event is a chance to turn the neutrals into positives. A good event can be the difference between an MP who is a passive sympathiser and an MP who actively campaigns on your behalf.
- Getting MPs to your events will show your boss, head of department, or chief executive that you are making an impact. It never hurts, does it? In a business in which tangibles are sometimes hard to come by, bums on seats can be very helpful.
So how do you get them to turn up?
Put Yourself in a Politician’s Shoes
MPs and ministers get more invitations than they can count. What is the difference between accepted invites and the ones that end up in the bin? First, let’s let’s look at what motivates MPs.
MPs and ministers need to demonstrate that they are having an impact. Typically, they are looking to build a name for themselves. They do this by owning their own issues. For most, the point of getting coverage is to make an impact on an issue they care about.
This gives us some rules to work by.
The event should be relevant to their interests and aims. Sadly, many invites are sent out en masse with little targetting. These are normally put straight in the bin by interns. Every MP has their list of issues and you should start with those you have cause to identify as being interested in your issues.
The event should offer them something they can use. Give MPs an experience they can use and they will be more likely to turn up. For instance:
- Get someone or something they can pose next to – a celebrity connected to your campaign or a campaign banner. Send them the picture later and they’ll have something to use for constituency press releases.
- Help them find out something they didn’t know before. If you represent a charity, invite them to meet the people you help. If you’re in industry, invite them to a factory or a product launch. Part of owning an issue is being knowledgeable about it, and most MPs pride themselves on their knowledge and attention to detail. Plus, they can refer to the experience you offered them in speeches or articles, increasing their credibility when they talk about this subect.
They should have a role in the event. Are you asking them to sit in the audience while someone else gives the keynote? Don’t be surprised if they aren’t interested. Try to give them a role or make them a focus.
It should be interesting. Don’t make them sit around watching endless speeches. Have them on their feet, doing stuff and meeting people. If it is a conference, try to stress the importance of the people turning up – e.g. “This is a great chance to meet all the most important people in this industry.”
If you know your event will be getting coverage, then mention it in the invite – the chance that their attendance will be mentioned in the press can be a deal breaker. You could even schedule time for attending journalists to speak to them.
When and Where
Start planning your event early. Six months isn’t too long a lead in time.
Booking rooms in Parliament can get competitive, so be prepared to call the Events Team and ask about which rooms are big enough, their availability, and the earliest date a friendly MP can make the booking for you. Don’t forget to consider locations around Westminster, either (for instance, the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors and The Cinnamon Club are both good spaces, if a bit overused!)
Next, make sure you are holding your event at a sensible place and a sensible time.
Check you aren’t trying to schedule your event during recess. Ministers or MPs with senior party jobs might be in London; everyone else will be in their constituencies.
For events in Westminster, Monday afternoon through to Wednesday evening (and possibly Thursday morning) are best, as most MPs travel to London on Monday mornings and disappear to their constituencies on Thursday afternoon or evening.
For events away from Westminster, Tuesday–Thursday mornings and early afternoon (generally before votes) or Wednesday and Thursday evenings (when the House rises earlier, and when more controversial votes aren’t likely to be scheduled) are best. Be warned – if controversial divisions get scheduled, it is unlikely they will be able to turn up. Keep an eye on what gets scheduled.
Are you trying to hold something on a weekend? If they are the local MP they might turn up; otherwise, it had better be something very special.
Making an Approach
When making an approach, there is no substitute for a having a good pre-existing relationship. But even if you don’t know an MP or minister, there are things you can do to maximise your invite’s chances.
If you are eager to get a particular person, plan your event around their availability.
Don’t be scared to speak directly to a minister’s private office. If you don’t know the diary manager(s) yet, get to them through the Department switchboard.
Always get the name of the person you have spoken to. If they commit to personally chasing up, you will want to know who they are. This can also be the start of building a relationship with someone inside the MP or minister’s office.
When speaking to Diary Managers initially, you want to know the best place to send invites, when you’re likely to hear back, and if the politician is likely to be available on your preferred date. You don’t want to wait four weeks for a reply only to discover they are on a trade mission to China during your event.
Once a week has passed, you can call and verify that it is in the system. Additional calls can be annoying; on the other hand, they can ensure your invite hasn’t become stuck or lost.
Ideally, you should get a response after 2-4 weeks for Ministers and 1-2 weeks for backbench MPs. Don’t be scared to chase during this time. Ultimately, your job is to produce results, and chasing is an inevitable part of this – but don’t be surprised if staff get annoyed at all your calls, and know when to back off!
If you have a good relationship with someone close to them – be they SpAd, researcher, civil servant, or another MP – ask them how you can maximise your chances of securing your target. They may even be willing to broker the approach for you. But be warned – you may lose control of the process, and you may find yourself chasing them to chase up your target.
Don’t forget to manage your colleagues’ reactions and expectations.
- Your boss might get terribly excited about your invite and tell the world that the Prime Minister is definitely turning up. Make sure to keep expectations in check!
- Your non-public affairs colleagues may get frustrated at delays or cancellations. Explain that MPs and Ministers are tough to secure. No shows are common (especially for events in Westminster), and they’ll only turn up if there are no emergencies in Parliament.
- If you are inviting lots of MPs to an event, make sure your colleagues understand the importance of quality over quantity. Not all MPs are the same. If ten backbenchers turn up, that’s great. But if you get the Opposition Spokesperson and the Chair of the Select Committee to turn up, that’s just as good, because they’re the relevant decision makers!
Oliver Campion-Awwad is a former Parliamentary Assistant and Public Affairs Manager for the Advertising Association.