Three Questions to Get Your Government Relations Job Done -- and Get Ahead

06/23/2011 03:11 pm ET | Updated Aug 23, 2011

So you are still settling into your new role: Global Public Policy Director at a dynamic internet company -- a company intent on providing services to every corner of this complex and conflicted planet. Your strategic, forward-thinking approach is what landed you the job and you are eager to establish productive relations with governments and regulators everywhere.

Last month, you attended the first "e-G8" summit in Paris and heard President Sarkozy assert that governments must remain in charge of regulating and policing the Internet. Two weeks later, you learned how the U.S. State Department is financing the creation of stealth networks for activists to communicate outside the reach of governments. You wonder (worry) whether your company has been approached to help.

Already your company's role in promoting democratic revolutions and responding to natural disasters has been hailed as heroic, while during the same, short time period, NGOs have vilified you for complying with government orders to filter content and share user data.

What else is on your plate? Your CEO has been asked to comment in the debate over civil liberties versus national security surveillance; you cringe at weekly media reports about data breaches or hacker attacks in your sector; your inbox is overflowing, not only with requests to testify before legislative committees, but also with the latest recommended guidelines from helpful institutions like the OECD and United Nations.

You knew your job would not be easy.

Fortunately, you started by confirming at the outset that your company has well-documented procedures for the more clear-cut policy areas related to privacy, criminal justice and law enforcement. Your cooperation in combating child exploitation, terrorist violence, piracy, trafficking and other crimes is unassailable, though you lament the jurisdictional contradictions that continually arise.

But beyond just jurisdictional conflicts, there are grey areas -- where legal and ethical considerations may be at odds, where regulations don't yet exist or where, given the growing prominence of your brand, you're called upon to "do the right thing". You have pledged to cooperate with governments wherever you do business, but how much?

Here are three questions to streamline your public policy decision-making process going forward:

How truly global are you?

If you are US-based and Hillary Clinton has praised you in a speech, it's too late. You will never be perceived outside the US as anything other than a US company. But if you haven't reached a level of prominence where you are hosting presidential town halls, you can still ask this question, no matter where you are based. Where are your users? Where are your employees? Where are your servers? How is your brand perceived? Are you susceptible to appeals to patriotism where the law (and your user agreements) may be unclear about a course of action?

What do your people (and your stakeholders) stand for?

Some companies get so caught up in chasing their IPOs that they can be unprepared for the onslaught of pressure groups and investor activists that come with going public. Ask yourself which protesters, if any, will show up at your first shareholder meeting. If you are not a publicly traded company, look to your users, employees and the civic institutions where you operate. Engage with them on what principles to abide by. Perform an internal "principles audit" so you can articulate your values to stakeholders, including those beyond your user population.

Are you at least doing something?

Where regulation is nonexistent, contradictory, pending or shifting, you need to demonstrate that you are working to get in front of complex, controversial issues. These range from the environmental sustainability of data centers, to conflict minerals in your hardware, to human rights and privacy protections. What efforts can you point to when grievances from NGOs, angry shareholders or the plaintiffs' bar arise? You need to know now, because government inquiry is sure to follow.

As busy as you are, here's why you still need to address these three questions: because working to gain answers before deploying an army of lobbyists and before the next public policy snafu will set you on a course that not only saves on lobbying, communications and crisis management costs, but builds a stronger company. In the process you can change a job that's largely about complying with government regulations to one that contributes social value on a global scale.

How's that for strategic and forward-thinking?