The Power of Compelling Narratives in Public Affairs - How to Write a Kick-Ass Position Paper that Sways Hearts and Minds
The core mission of Public Affairs is to ensure accurate and effective representation of the interests of a given organization. With the advent of digitalization, Public Affairs professionals can use a wide array of tools and tactics to make their points heard. But there is no substitute for the good old position paper to condense key arguments and facts in a single place.
Regardless of the issue at stake, effective position papers will display well-reasoned logic, simplify complex information, advocate for sensible recommendations and synthesize essential information in a written product that shouldn’t be longer than four pages. Even if you are preparing for a verbal discussion, writing a document will help you think about the messages and the logic that you want to convey, and it is a highly appreciated leave-behind that will allow your interlocutor to go back to the substance of your arguments.
In a Public Affairs context, a position paper needs to achieve two objectives: 1) it needs to communicate, clearly and concisely, the position taken by your organization concerning a specified policy area, and 2) it needs to also influence policy-makers – ideally so that they act in accordance with your wishes, or close to. Presenting arguments and evidence that are important to you in a compelling way is vital, but in order to influence someone, you should always ask yourself what information may be important to them. If they perceive your work to be useful, it will lead them to be positively predisposed towards your “ask” (see “Appendices” later).
In general, the structure of a position paper should include seven components:
1. Summary: start with an opening paragraph that goes straight to the point, summarizing the issue and the recommendation(s). The goal is to grab the reader’s attention and encourage them to want to read on;
2. Issue: explain the issue using relevant data and statistics, including financial, environmental, cultural, and political aspects to consider;
3. Impact: describe the (potential) impact of current (or proposed) public policy; consider the consequence of the government doing nothing and why there is a need to address the issue now (or not);
4. Policy options: list the possible options, including the “do nothing” option, that exist to address the issue; describe costs and benefits of each option for your business, the industry, other stakeholders, the economy and society as a whole. If other organizations have weighed in on the issue, briefly describe their positions. If other countries have addressed the issue in a favorable manner, mention them here. Mention other international aspects that are relevant, particularly if the issue involves product standards, intellectual property, international trade matters, etc.
5. Recommendations: offer specific advice on the action that should be taken, both in terms of substance and procedure. For instance, a technical issue may be better dealt with by implementing regulations;
6. Monitoring and evaluation: you may want to make suggestions for particular activities to be undertaken by the government to monitor implementation, monitor and evaluate the policy's impact, and to review the policy in due course.
7. Appendices: this is where you can include facts and figures that will back up the arguments contained in the main body of the paper. But it is also where you can help the decision-maker by providing them with the information they may find helpful to themselves, for instance:
a. A history of the issue and how previous governments have dealt with it and with what results;
b. References to relevant research reports or extracts that contain the most crucial information and/or summaries of these reports made by you;
c. Copies of media articles and public statements that the decision-maker may not have seen;
d. Details of how other countries have addressed the same or a similar issue.
Writing a position paper may help you organize your thoughts and secure support from your stakeholders. A well-written position paper will be clear, succinct, objective, yet persuasive. A high-quality document will signal you know your stuff, and you appreciate that your interlocutor has very little time. It will also provide policymakers and other stakeholders with material that they may incorporate directly into their own documents. When they do that, you can be sure your paper hit the target.