International Trade and Local Politics

 By: Alan Jilka
Governmental affairs work in a foreign environment requires a special set of personal characteristics. In this article we will explore a few of the main ingredients that a government relations/business development professional will need to enhance the local market for his company in the environs of another country.

The first of our necessary ingredients is a thorough understanding of the political process. One can start by using his or her knowledge of their home country's politics. There are multiple levels of government in the United States - county, city, state and federal. In addition there can be any number of other entities with governance and taxing authority. Some examples would be a library board, transportation authority, an airport industrial area, local school board, TIF (tax increment financing) district, regional economic development entity, etc.

Our professional will need to know who these people are and how they are appointed/elected. In the case of governmental elections each level can have distinguishing characteristics. Municipal elections can be either partisan or non-partisan. Elections at the state and federal level are usually partisan. A government relations professional must understand the environment in which he or she is working. Some countries in the world are still dominated by a single party. Russia and some Middle Eastern countries would be examples. Others have recently moved away from a one party dominant system, such as in the case of Mexico. Others, such as Brazil, have multiple political parties that all participate in the national governing equation.

A company's representative in another country must understand all these dynamics, and learn who are the powers behind the actors. Some of this information can be gleaned from campaign finance reports that are public, although access to such information varies. In other circumstances there is no substitute for interacting with individuals on the ground. In this regard it's like any other business. Official and casual functions each provide opportunities to learn more about the governing bodies and their influences. There's no substitute for a thorough understanding of the political process wherever one is working in this area.

A corporate governmental relations professional must also be a self-starter, and be willing to learn quickly. It's necessary to know who the leaders are, both in name and in actuality. And different legislators sometimes require different approaches. Like any group a legislative body includes leaders and followers. During my time as a city commissioner I recall a lobbyist that once came to me wanting support on a particular issue, one on which I was already supportive. He then went on to ask about how he could reach out to another member of the commission. I shared my opinion that he need not spend an extensive amount of time lobbying for this person's vote, since she would usually follow the lead of her mentor on the Board. The issue played out as I expected and the member voted with her mentor and provided the decisive vote on a contentious issue.

In the same way there are leaders in any community, individuals who lead as others follow. They may be large donors, or heads of large companies, or directors of well-regarded non-profits. Ingenuity, creativity and plain old hard work and hustle are often needed to uncover a lot of this information that will ultimately be required to achieve success in a lobbying endeavor.

Thirdly, one must speak the language of your host country well. The better an individual can communicate, in any situation, the better his or her chances for success. And this is even more crucial while working in an international setting. When one learns another language, the person also learns about the culture of those who speak it. The two are intertwined.

Better command of the target language will assist an individual with the cultural nuances of the country in which he or she is working. Attention to the detail of such cultural characteristics can facilitate achievement of your ultimate goal - the representative's support for your company's position. Ignorance of such cultural nuance can make your job much more difficult. In the worst case, a company official could lose support by committing an egregious offense, and not even realize it.

So in summary, when working in the governmental affair area in another country one needs a thorough knowledge of the political process, be the type of person who takes individual initiative, and be fluent in the native language of the country in which he or she is working. Having been an elected official, or possessing previous experience working in campaigns or on the staff of an elected official provides excellent preparation for the first two items. And having lived in a country where the target language is spoken will prove invaluable.

Governmental affairs are not substantively different in most countries. But solid language skills and the wisdom of previous political experience can provide one with the edge needed for success.
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