TORONTO—It’s the federal election and candidates from all the parties are looking to connect with voters. What’s one way they do that? Find a local business to host an event during the campaign where the party’s policy platform can be highlighted, employees can gather around the candidate, other guests and the media can be invited.
These gatherings are in high demand during a campaign and business owners across Canada may get a call requesting a visit from a Member of Parliament (or someone who wants to be a Member of Parliament). Successful companies make a great venue for elected officials to connect with employees (who are also voters) and lively workplaces offer great photo opportunities for the media. Manufacturing facilities are often in high demand because of the importance of manufacturing to the economy, the connection with the party platforms related to manufacturing and simply put, the shop floor makes a great photo for a news story.
A visit from government could represent a great opportunity for a business owner and having a relationship with government is important – but there’s a distinction between government and politics. That difference becomes even more stark during election time.
Many people understand there is a difference between government staff or bureaucrats, who are permanent, non-partisan government employees who work with and for the politicians, who are elected to run our country. Politicians must run for election every four years and can change roles frequently, putting forward policies based on their party’s ideology of what they plan to do if elected.
In the lead-up to an election, the party holding office will typically use its status as the government to its advantage to get out into the community, visit businesses and make strategic funding announcements. Sometimes the months leading up to the election will be used to travel to specific ridings based on the governing political party’s strength or weakness there.
Before the election gets underway, a call asking if a federal minister can visit a particular business, is a great opportunity. It would be wise to accept and establish a relationship with the permanent government staff. This is a ‘government’ visit and it’s mostly upside and tends to be very low-risk. It’s helpful to have an opportunity to educate government officials about a particular company and sector, which can help government officials to understand the business challenges and us their position or influence to help businesses overcome them.
It’s a different set of decisions once the formal election period begins. Typically, the formal election period begins about five weeks before election day although in this election, the campaign is running from August until voting day on October 19th. During the campaign, politicians or campaign staff are reaching out to set up visits to a business, with reporters and photographers present. This is also an opportunity, but there are implications to hosting a politically motivated visit.
Large companies often set an all-or-none policy for hosting political events during the formal campaign period, and most opt for the latter. Simply put, their policy prevents campaigning politicians from any party to use their businesses as backdrops for photo opportunities. This way there’s no implication that the business in question, or the business owner, are endorsing one candidate over another. It also reduces the risk of alienating customers or others whose political views differ from the visiting candidate’s.
Smaller businesses might also decide to open their doors to all candidates in an attempt to generate awareness of their businesses and capitalize on any media exposure. This can be risky because there’s no guarantee more than one party will ask to visit, meaning there might only be one visit that ends up inadvertently leaving the impression that the business supports one candidate or one party over the others.
Is it OK to say no to candidates who ask to tour the shop floor, office space, or use a particular building as their backdrop? The simple answer is yes – it’s common practice during a campaign and there’s unlikely to be any penalty.
As a business leader or owner, deciding whether or not to host a government official is pretty straight forward. If the call comes ahead of the election, or if the new government that will be sworn in after October 19th makes contact about hosting an event at your place of business, feel free to open your doors, because those photos won’t end up on political campaign literature. They may even serve your business interests in the long run.
Faye Roberts is co-founder and managing partner at Scout Public Affairs Inc.