What Is Public Affairs All About?

Organizations aren’t islands. In an increasingly complex and changing world, monitoring and managing the external environment is a must for any organization aiming for success. For quite some time, corporations have built in-house Public Affairs capabilities to be on top of social and political development and to align their practices with global public agendas (such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals). More and more, governments around the world are deploying the so-called “soft power” to elicit support from other countries and are deploying communication strategies to engage local communities.

 

Yet, Public Affairs is still relatively unknown to most people, particularly when compared to other fields like Marketing or Sales. 

Legislation and regulations are very impactful for any affected organization, which is why the work of Public Affairs practitioners is often equated to ‘lobbying’. However, lobbying is only one component of Public Affairs, and ‘direct lobbying’ – the activity of interacting directly with government officials – is a mere sub-component. Increasingly, companies and organizations bring their issues directly to the public audiences whose opinions can influence the development of policies. Not only is it very difficult to amend a piece of draft legislation/regulation when it reaches the decision or voting stage, but the digitalization of communication has exponentially broadened the public’s participation in policy debates.

In my experience, good Public Affairs practice, whether in-house or not, must include:

  • Government Relations – the ability to interact with policy-makers and elected officials, including members of Parliament, government members and their staff, and regional and local officials

  • Policy – the formulation of company positions on a given issue and on a given legislative or regulatory proposal

  • Stakeholder Engagement – the management of relationships with groups that have a stake in a given issue. For example, trade associations, NGOs, social media-based movements

  • Public opinion research – the acquisition of data indicating the views of the public on the issue at stake as well as its general sentiment

  • Issue & Crisis Management – the ability to effectively respond to a crisis. For example, a negative headline on a prominent media outlet

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It is within the matrix of Corporate Communications strategies and Public Relations (PR) initiatives that Public Affairs maximizes its results. Explaining how these functions and professionals all work together in the interest of an organization requires a certain degree of approximation. While the primary scope of PR is essentially to “control and track” the flow of information about a company, the goal of Corporate Communication is to identify the topics that will inform the organization's communication efforts. Against this background, leveraging on factors like investments, employment, and giving-back initiatives, and actively engaging with the communities of reference, an effective public affairs strategy can move legislators and policy-makers in supporting a shared agenda, even when such support may be controversial.

Critically, Public Affairs (and PR) activities tend to involve the highest level of the organizations concerned, thus making them appear, more often than not, as a direct emanation of that organization’s leadership. As leadership models evolve to reflect contemporary trends such as inclusion and diversity, openness and transparency, and attention to global social and economic issues, Public Affairs strategies and practices need to evolve accordingly.

Public Affairs may be viewed as the diplomatic arm of businesses, as it strives to shorten the distances between the actors involved and the interests and sensibilities they express. Rather than building fortresses, businesses and public organizations must regard this process as an opportunity to advance their own agendas and, without betraying their mandates and abdicating their core principles, achieve those results that society at large would also benefit from.

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