How are Charity Public Affairs Teams engaging with MPs during the Covid-19 outbreak?

What is it like to be working with MPs and trying to influence change in the current political and social climate? We interviewed 7 people from a range of charities who are working with MPs at the moment to discover the challenges (and opportunities) they are facing.  

Heather Sturgess

Intro and background

Between 15th and 21st April, we interviewed 7 of our parliamentary clients to find out how their work with MPs was affected by Covid-19, and what plans they were developing about their future work. The interviewees were from a range of charity sectors, with some working in roles that were directly involved in responding to the crisis, and others working on issues that had been put on hold. All the respondents take part in our Charity Parliamentary Monitor (CPM) tracking research with MPs and Peers.

Due to the Covid-19 crisis charities have cancelled or postponed events to engage with MPs, some campaigns have been paused and charities find themselves adapting and working on completely new topics. Some are also working with reduced capacity as team members or even whole teams are furloughed. Putting aside the seriousness of the issue, it is frustrating timing just as parliamentary attention was finally away from Brexit and other legislation was on the agenda.

We have pulled out some of the key themes in this blog. It is worth noting the interviews took place before the virtual parliament was up and running.

5 key findings

  1. Email is the main communication channel still open to many charities
  2. MPs are responding quicker to some issues
  3. MPs are engaging more on social media
  4. Building relationships with new MPs is harder without meetings
  5. There has been more collaborative working

How long can non-Covid-19 issues be put on the back burner?

For some charities, their area of expertise means they have become much busier in recent weeks. MPs have turned to these charities looking for information and advice on how Covid-19 is impacting beneficiaries and how they can be better supported. For many others, this has not been the case. As one public affairs professional said,

“Do I want to be taking up valuable time and space on a non-health issue?”
 

Charities are very conscious that engagement with MPs at this present moment should be related to the current crisis and constantly assessing the appropriateness of talking about other issues at this time. One recognised that not acknowledging this context could come with reputational risk and look odd or insensitive, “if we didn’t do that, we would look ridiculous at the moment”.

For charities whose issues were high on the agenda, this could be a drastic change in affairs.

“Our issues have moved right down the agenda”
 

So, when is the right time to engage? Some interviewees not working in crisis-related sectors talked about the balancing act of maintaining relationships with MPs but not detracting attention away from current issues.

“continue to find lines of communications with MPs if it’s relevant – but don’t ignore the fact that the world is how it is right now”
 

This is where established relationships with MPs could be crucial. Some charities talked about speaking with MPs whom they already have good working relationships with about campaigns to help determine when to start actively campaigning again.

There was also some speculation that further down the line, Covid-19 fatigue could set in, similar to what we saw with Brexit fatigue. However, for now, it still feels like issues that fall outside of the current crisis are not a priority.

Email is the main communication channel still open to many charities

“Everyone is communicating via email”
 

Most participants commented on the even greater reliance on email, with one respondent saying that all the usual tactics that Public Affairs use have gone. Letters, calls and meetings are harder to do or not possible under the lockdown. One interviewee noted that whereas previously they would have met MPs in person to resolve some issues, this is now all happening over email.

For one respondent who is particularly missing face to face meetings, email is the “lowest form of communication”.

Now that emails have become even more of a dominant means of communication with MPs there was a recognition that correspondence needed to stand out and be useful. There was also caution from several of the charities against overloading MPs with emails about non-urgent topics. Tips on how to write effective emails included making sure subject lines stood out – for example if there was information and advice for constituents about a certain health issue making sure this was clear.

“Remember your beneficiaries in all communications.”
 

 Remembering to bring the focus back to those you are there to help was also advised. Other advice included personalising any mass emails, and sending some requests to MPs’ staff instead.

MPs are responding quicker to some issues

With MPs spending more time at their computers, some charity parliamentary staff are reporting much quicker response times. This could be on casework, but also in how responsive MPs are being to communications from charity supporters. Supporters had reported responses from MPs within “1 hour” of an email being sent, something unheard of pre-lockdown. However, not all the charities found this to be the case. One respondent described MPs as less accessible and “present” compared to other key stakeholders they work with.

Charities have also found they have had to respond quickly, for example preparing at for short notice select committees, something they would usually have much more time to do pre-lockdown.

MPs are engaging more on social media

Some charities noticed an increase in MPs’ engagement with them on social media. One charity noted that MPs had tweeted out information from the weekly email updates that they sent. For charities working on issues that are not responding to the immediate crisis, some still found that MPs were engaging with their advice on twitter. For example, retweeting infographics they had made to inform their beneficiaries.

“We are doing some research on how to engage with MPs online”

 

From those that we interviewed, it felt that there was room to engage more with MPs over social media, and some respondents acknowledged that they were looking to do more.

Building relationships with new MPs is harder without meetings

The election in December 2019 saw 140 new MPs enter Parliament. In terms of engaging with MPs who were new to parliament after the 2019 election, there was a mixed picture. Some charities noted that their engagement strategy for building relationships with new MPs had been changed as events targeting this group were postponed or cancelled and visits to sites postponed.

We are “yet to have face to face meetings and establish a rapport”

 

Some charities acknowledged that building new relationships without the face to face contact would be harder. Party conferences have not been cancelled and were mentioned as the next main event where charities could engage with the new MPs, but there is uncertainty on if they will be going ahead and if so, in what format.

However, some charities had found that new MPs were keen to engage and approachable. Charities directly involved in responding to Covid-19 had sent a lot more communications to the new cohort. They said they had had positive and proactive engagement from new MPs.

There has been more collaborative working

Working in coalition with other charities was mentioned by several organisations that we spoke with. Coalitions were described as a “much more powerful” way of providing evidence and demonstrating to MPs that others are experiencing the same issues. The sight loss and cancer sectors were named as good examples of collaborating to influence key issues affecting beneficiaries. Others spoke of using coalitions to ensure that charities working in the same sector were giving out the same advice.

The need to share resources and knowledge was a driver in improving relationships with internal and external groups. One respondent described a positive shift in their relationship with Local Authorities who now see their charity as a resource. As a result, they have pivoted their focus to working more with Local Authorities and Local Government over MPs.

Another organisation spoke of how relationships with local offices have improved during the crisis as they all work together to share information and resources. They noted that they no longer feel like a “burden” to local offices and instead are able to share useful resources and advice.

One respondent described a change in how they work with MPs whereas previously it was more along the lines of “going to MPs asking them to do something”, now MPs were actively approaching them as they had a united goal.

It feels like there have been many collaborative responses to Covid-19 and this is something that the charities we spoke to hoped would continue beyond this crisis.

Engaging with MPs without all the traditional public affairs tools at their disposal has required charities to reconsider their approach. Charities have been forced to reassess how they can continue to provide a voice for those that they help and continue to be an important resource for MPs. 

If you want to find out more about this or our other parliamentary research please contact cpm@nfpsynergy.net.

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