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Increasing Internal Government Affairs Visibility Through the (can you believe it?) HR Department

Many corporate government affairs staff covet the opportunity to meet with new employees during routine “new employee orientation.” We often believe if we can simply get in front of these malleable minds, they will develop an allegiance to our grassroots and PAC. Getting in front of them, however, is an HR hurdle. Then, if and when we do get to talk with them, we don’t always get the results we had hoped for. Why? We neglect the importance of substance and style when interacting with new employees.

Ann Clayton of ConocoPhillips and the Government Affairs team did get in front of her new hires and interns, and received rave reviews from the audience. Read my interview with her below to find out how she did it. I’ve inserted some “reality checks” into this article so you can contemplate how to adapt some of Anne’s techniques.

Q: How did the opportunity to present Government Affairs programs to new interns and hires arise?

I contacted the person in charge of our New Hire Network who also worked closely with our summer interns. Our summer interns had a segment this summer on leadership and that is who we talked to first. We will be planning a new employee meeting soon. The HR people really want us to bring in a member of Congress and I’ve talked to the chiefs of staff of two members. HR is very excited about this.

Q: What was the meeting format?

Our meeting format was partly what went over so well with these young people. We first showed a Tonight Show replay of “W” then we gave them a pop quiz. The questions were ones we knew were common misconceptions about what corporations can and cannot do. We also asked them why they thought corporations were involved in politics and we went over with them very clearly why — that corporations being involved is not a bad thing.

Reality Check #1: Rather than fighting objections (“corporations shouldn’t be involved in politics”), acknowledge and address them. This demonstrates credibility and respect for your audience.

There were two of presenters — me, the grassroots and PAC person, and one of our state lobbyists who is a very dynamic speaker. We ended with a Saturday Night Live skit of President Clinton. We were told it was one of the best presentations they had all summer; I think it was simply more fun.

Reality Check #2: Humor matters.

Reality Check #3: Think of how your audience is influenced in their daily lives. Research shows that young people get most of their political knowledge from comedy shows. Instead of fighting that, embrace it and incorporate it into your presentation.

Q: What type of response did you receive from the new hires?

It was very positive. They were very surprised about what companies can and cannot do. These were all very bright students and they answered very few of the questions correctly which, to me, meant that we did indeed provide them with new information.

Q: What were typical questions asked by the new associates? They asked about our backgrounds, degrees and how we got jobs in the Government Affairs profession. We made our presentation first (45 minutes), then we went to the company cafeteria with them. They didn’t so much ask questions, but wanted to tell us about the things they had done politically. I recommend presenting first and then having lunch or a coffee break with them so that you can build relationships. It gave us a chance to talk with them one on one when they may be reluctant to ask questions.

Q: What advice would you give to government affairs professionals who want to institute this type of program in their companies? Talk with your HR staff about options. Our company offers regular meetings for the new hires in our large field offices. Presenters come in and talk about different aspects of our company, usually operations and financial people. You make their job easier if you invite yourself. Quite frankly, government affairs is not typically the first group they think to talk to.

Reality Check #4: Take responsibility to promote the value of Government Affairs. Don’t wait to be invited to participate in these meetings.

Q: What were the results of the meeting?

The result is that we are on HR’s radar screen, they want to make us regular presentations to the summer interns each year and also be a part of the regular program with the New Hires. This means that we can more quickly influence employees about our issues. That increases the probability that they will respond to our Action Calls. We are tracking involvement in our PAC and grassroots as a result of these presentations, and will have information on that later next year.

Q: Why do you believe your presentation was so popular?

I believe the format was consistent with how these individuals learn. It wasn’t a technical presentation, or a lecture; they learned something they could quickly relate to. One of the questions we asked was: “Do you think ConocoPhillips has supported Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger?” Of course, they yelled out “NO WAY.” Well, of course, we have and we explained why. The HR people who sat in on the meeting told us they were embarrassed — they learned as much as the students did.

Q: What did you and the GR team learn from this experience?

I learned that I need to go all over the company and give this same pop quiz. I met the other day with one of our IT people. I was talking with our IT folks about what we do and why so they could understand some new technology applications we were requesting. They, just like the students, said: “We didn’t know you guys did all of that!” Reality Check #5: It’s a risk to assume that all departments understand and appreciate the Government Relations function. We have to earn their allegiance and respect.