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Conventional wisdom: American style

American national political conventions are among the biggest spectacles in politics. Other than Election Day and Inauguration Day, few events in the U.S. political psyche are more important, and – unlike those other events – conventions offer public affairs specialists more opportunity to expand their influence with key political stakeholders, gather intelligence on important issues, meet decision-makers and ultimately advance an agenda.

On paper, the conventions are focused on allowing each party to develop its national “platform” (list of political and policy positions), prioritize its issues, hone its stances for the upcoming election and officially nominate its presidential ticket. However, these become almost secondary activities next to a once in every four years super-gathering of influencers.

Organized by the respective national committees, and taking place in Cleveland from July 18-21 for Republicans, and in Philadelphia from July 25-28 for Democrats, the weeks of conventions are full of panels, workshops, happy hours, meet and greets, discussions and topical events held over breakfast, lunch, dinner and every hour in between.

I’ve been to every Democratic convention since I arrived in Washington D.C. fifteen years ago – a few Republican conventions too – and I know from experience that whether your client wants to meet with thought leaders, decision-makers or journalists, in order to advance their agenda, raise their stature or impact policy, strategic planning can make it happen. 

A range of organizations, from the Hollywood political lobby “Creative Coalition” to major media properties like Politico, hold events that invite corporate sponsors to participate. They can start at as much as $200,000 for a place at an “elites dinner” featuring a corporate logo. And while those events shouldn’t be discounted, with a good guide and a clear strategy, a company or organization seeking to maximize their exposure and advance their issues in Washington can seek out much greater return on investment.

So, what should you expect?

First, picture the scene. A week full of networking opportunities on steroids, as every single politician from either side of the aisle, along with the leaders from every industry and the entire national media converge in one city. You’ll find yourself watching Bill Clinton’s motorcade go by, just as you (sometimes literally) bump into Jon Stewart.

But the real value for those in public affairs lies in the many substantive policy and issue-oriented attendees. It’s an ideal setting to reach out to prospective clients, connect with new members of the media, make your case for issues or priorities in the next Administration or just make as many introductions as you can to see what sticks.

When it comes to meeting other professionals it’s also worth remembering to get outside the Convention Center. While it is the main attraction, the entire city will be packed with interesting events and important people.

This confluence of influence also makes conventions a perfect place to take the pulse of the national conversation. Scouting out convention events is a savvy way to get a sense of which issues industry leaders are talking about, how they are talking about them and what you can do to plug into their conversation. This is best accomplished by those who do their homework ahead of time and review schedules provided by political groups, corporate sponsors and media outlets, like Politico or The Atlantic, to find niche events that are relevant to their professional interests and clients.

If you’re willing to do some serious preparation beforehand, you can even shape the conversation by getting your clients, or even yourself, placed on agenda-setting panels and roundtables. Making this happen requires planning and working your contacts ahead of time. Of course, you can also hold your own event in town during the convention if you want full control and assurance that your issues will be featured. The key here is, once again, to get started early. If you’re planning your own event the first challenge is finding a venue—if you don’t beat the rush, you may find yourself on the corner competing for space with street performers.

One important point, however: going to a convention is fun – it might yield tangible progress on an issue or help you make multiple new connections. But make no mistake, if you are attempting to educate relevant audiences (and particularly a prospective incoming Administration) about an issue, or advocate for a cause, it is not enough to go to a convention.

You need a holistic public affairs strategy that targets each sequential “touch point” of the Presidential campaigns, from pre-primary and conventions through the transition team and inauguration. Foundations and major organizations will spend millions doing exactly that this year. And while nobody needs a budget that big to make themselves heard, it’s an indication of just how sophisticated advocacy around Presidential campaigns has become. For the smart, nimble and strategic, that can be a major asset.

The only danger is being left behind. 


Alex Slater

Clyde Group

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