A Candidate view – Lessons of best practice for candidate engagement

In just three weeks’ time, 650 parliamentary-candidates will win a majority in their constituencies, making them the elected Members of Parliament and at the same time forming the fifty-seventh Parliament. As a constituent, your new MP will have the power to represent you in a number of ways. This week, the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru and the Conservatives have launched their manifestos, with the SNP and others gradually announcing teaser-policies ahead of their full slate of pledges. Whilst these manifesto commitments offer a direction for the next governing party, the occasion to campaign, challenge and convince party candidates – 650 of whom will soon become elected representatives is an important part of democracy and a good opportunity to get them on side before the reality of being elected and accountable ensues.

In the third edition of Portland’s parliamentary insight, Victoria answers questions on what national-level stakeholder engagement really hit home for her and her Campaign Managers.

What worked well in terms of engagement from external organisations with your campaign team?

A candidate will be inundated with social media requests, letters and phone messages from constituents, party activists, the media, party staffers and other stakeholders. Trying to cut through the noise can be a real challenge.

From my experience, the mailings that stood out during the campaign were often the printed mailings that landed in our letter box – very few email campaigns seemed to put as much effort into the content and presentation as the print ones – with the exception of a few who emailed short and informative videos to us.

One of the best I received had a short covering letter explaining why they were contacting me, (to let me know they had offices, customers and employees within the constituency and what benefits that brought to the town). This was accompanied by a fact sheet of the constituency which offered my team and I useful and general insights. Interestingly, there were no direct calls to action other than to introduce themselves, offer a point person if I had any questions and to share helpful and non-biased information on the constituency I was representing. They sent a series of similar letters throughout the campaign starting within a month of being selected. By the time polling day arrived, whilst I had not spoken directly with the organisation, I certainly felt like the organisation was interested in working with me in a helpful manner and were approachable, even when they were not campaigning/lobbying for my support on anything. It completely changed any preconceptions our team had of the organisation because of this non-quid-pro-quo, co-operative and open approach.

What didn’t work so well in terms of engagement from external organisations with your campaign team?

There were certainly some organisations who got it all wrong; from the timing, ‘the ask’ (both what they were asking for and how they asked), and who they were talking to. Here are a few things to consider:

Generic mailings to ‘the candidate’ were easy to overlook or mistake for junk mail. Tip: personalise the address, either to the candidate, their agent or their Campaign Managers (or if budget allows, target each of them).

The combination of a generic addressee, with long letters or complicated leaflets risked them becoming even less of a priority to read and respond to simply because letters and emails from constituents always take priority, (and there are always plenty to respond to). Try not to make it even harder to get to the top of the pile in a busy, volunteer-managed campaign office. Tip: Keep it short and clear what you are asking for or why you are reaching out to that team in particular.

When the correspondence did not explain (at least clearly) the cause or organisation’s relevance to the constituency and why it is important to that candidate’s voters e.g. even if a town is urban, there could well be a reason why a ban on fox hunting is important to those voters/the town’s economy etc. then the Office Manager or whoever is responsible for filing the correspondence might not appreciate the importance and file it away.  Tip: Find a link and make it obvious why your piece of correspondence needs to finds its way into the Candidate’s hands!

Avoid correspondence that asks for something without explanation or without helping the campaign team understand why this is important. The candidate isn’t being paid to do what they do (in fact, the expense of writing and posting a letter will probably come out of their own pocket). So, being helpful is key. Are you able to share insights into the constituency (like in the example above) which the candidate can then use to cite facts and stats in their campaign? If so, your name/organisation’s logo could be on the letter or poster which is pinned to the cork board. Alternatively, have you included a free-post return envelope if you want them to fill in a survey? Or perhaps you can provide a list of campaign actions they can take if they are a new ‘ambassador’ of your cause? Otherwise, have you just introduced yourselves in previous correspondence prior to making the ask so the team feel a connection to the cause/team/organisation?

How are you asking? Even if you suspect a candidate will vote or lean one way on an issue, it is best not to assume this. A clear, concise and considered argument may just sway the individual – get this wrong and you could have a permanent opponent of your cause. Tip: Be polite, well-informed and constructive in your approach.

Who are you asking? Sending one letter to the candidate and another to the Campaign Manager may just help get the argument across, so do not underestimate the role other key figures play in the campaign. Chances are, that external policy correspondence or diary requests will be dealt with by another member of the team, who will have more time to consume and understand your ask. So think about other key members of the team (particularly because the Campaign Manager/s or Agent may well become the Parliamentary or Constituency Office staffers-so you want to get them onside too). Tip: the candidate isn’t the only person deciding on policy positions and top lines, so think about other non-public facing people in the team who may be in a better position to respond to your correspondence.

Finally – think about timing! If you only have money to send out one or two mailings or make one or two phone calls, then it probably isn’t best to do this immediately prior to or post the general election. The candidate probably won’t be spending much time in the office at these points and so the chances are they will not see the letter from your organisation/cause immediately. Tip: Get in touch with the team as far in advance as possible so they have plenty of time to read, consider and consume your correspondence. Also, if you want to hold an event outside of the constituency which may take an hour or two to get to, then seriously consider when this is going to be, or whether it would be better to organise it ‘closer to home’. No Campaign Manager would let their candidate attend an event outside of the constituency that does not obviously help the people they represent when they could, and should, be talking to and representing their constituents.

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