Overhauling public affairs: much needed modernisation


Public affairs has a reputation issue and a modernisation drive is long overdue. This chapter looks at how the discipline has evolved and new opportunities for practitioners. 

You’ll learn:
•    Why public affairs needs to modernise, adopt a strategic approach and offer greater transparency
•    How public affairs is much more than access and should incorporate media relations and social media
•    About grassroots campaigns as a beneficial means to an end

If ever there was a time for public affairs to sit back and take a good, hard look at itself, it is right now. And quickly. The full force of insurgent voter power is in full swing in most mature democracies. Precisely the places in which public affairs is supposed to be at its most well honed!

Whether it’s Brexit, Trump, the Italian Five Star Movement, Le Pen, Alternative For Deutschland, Scottish Independence or just good old social media - same old, same old public affairs just won’t do anymore. 

It is as disconnected from the politics around us as the so called ‘elites’ are too.

In fact many of the ‘insurgent’ groups I mentioned above are now effortlessly mainstream in the body politic. But this comes at a big price for the public affairs sector. They view traditional lobbying as being the enemy. Sometimes it is.

Where do we sit?

In some ways public affairs is indeed viewed as part of that ‘elites’ problem. 

Being interviewed on Channel 4 News by Jon Snow back in 2015, he asked me something I really had not prepared for. “Are you part of the establishment,” he inquired? 

As someone who has never thought of themselves as part of that group, I was genuinely shocked. But perhaps I should not have been.

It’s too easy to characterise public affairs in this way. Most people see it as purely lobbying and for those who only represent BIG business. 

This, of course, ignores that many of the most powerful and successful public affairs strategies don’t come from the corporate sector at all.

We need to bury the black book

But the issue remains one of perception - a perception enhanced by public affairs practice which continues to place emphasis on access.

The idea that the ‘little black book of who you know’ can suffice any more - if it ever did - must now be surely dead and buried forever. 

The question of ‘access’ is just not one that stands the test of external scrutiny anymore. This is something that I wanted to expose head on during the passage of the Westminster legislation to create the UK Government’s lobbying register back in 2013/14.

Appearing before the Public Administration Select Committee - a rather useful body which has been disbanded in the current UK parliament and which I hope comes back in a future guise - I was constantly asked the question by MPs - isn’t lobbying all about access?

You could see the MPs look rather disappointed when I told them that I could run a highly effective public affairs strategy without ever going anywhere near an MP or a minister. And that’s just the point now - access for access’s sake seems to the starting point for so much public affairs and that’s plain wrong.

Digital and media relations are equally effective

Digital and media strategies are just as good - if not better - public affairs strategies as meeting policymakers themselves these days. This emphasises why so much of the so called lobbying legislation starts from just the wrong place. Meetings rather than ideas.

So let’s hit the refresh button right here. Creating monstrous lists of top policymaker targets should not be the starting point any more. Looking at just what you want to achieve and looking at the right levers to achieve that objective has to be a better approach. It should always have been this way. 

The push back on access has to start at the beginning of any campaign. It is just too tempting to give in to clients or internal bosses who ask that perennial question: ‘Who do you know’.

Just like digital strategies, the good news is more and more serious buyers of public affairs understand that lobbying is today an all encompassing part of the communications mix. In fact sometimes a media relations approach towards a public affairs problem is going to prove much faster and much more effective.

Start from the ground up

Grassroots campaigning is also something that public affairs needs to get a handle on. If you go to the US there is an entire industry devoted to this. Some of the techniques of micro targeting used there need to be adopted here. 

For digitally savvy politicians and media respond to a bottom up, grassroots work impact much more than top down activities.

The use of polling too needs a refresh. Battered by the inability of the political polling industry to correctly predict much these days - policymakers have become super wary of any macro, national polling which suggests voters want or don’t want something to happen. I believe the lobbying sector needs to sit down with the polling sector and work out a new way.

Finally governance around public affairs needs to be robust. I have been happy to campaign with Transparency International on many issues. For example, I was happy to speak on a platform to help them launch one of the reports on the lobbying sector. While I don’t agree with every dot and comma of their approach - I do agree that the sector must not appear to operate in the shadows.

Good governance means everyone in the sector signing up to robust standards that work and are seen to work - that’s both agencies and in house teams. In that regard I have been delighted to play a part in seeing FTSE companies signing up to greater governance and also ensuring more public affairs agencies than ever now sign up to robust standards.

There’s lots more to do. But for me closing the little black book is the best start.

Iain Anderson is the Executive Chairman at Cicero and an expert in global public policy issues affecting financial services. He has over 20 years’ experience in communications, as a business journalist and then as a founding shareholder at Incisive Media. He has worked for a range of UK politicians, including Rt Hon Kenneth Clarke MP on his leadership bids.

Twitter: @iain_w_anderson
Online: www.cicero-group.com