Once upon a time lobbyists and public affairs professionals operated in one of the most effective closed shops ever created. It was very clear where politics and public policy development took place. In the parliament, assembly and congress buildings within distinct nation states with well-developed administrative functions and formal stakeholder groupings.
Then there were the supranational bodies like the UN with a similar set up which appeared pretty opaque to those not in the know.
The value of the public affairs professional came from knowing the system and how to use it in order to get the right message to the right people at the right time.
Nowadays, of course, politics and policy development has broken free of the confines of bricks and mortar and the great debates take place on your phone, tablet and TV at a pace that, to coin of phrase, makes the 24 hour news cycle look like ‘a long time in politics’.
It sometimes appears as if political systems are straining under the weight of change and struggling to cope with the structural and economic upheaval left in the wake of the financial crisis. Just look at the failure to form governments in Italy, Greece and Belgium and the conflict in Ukraine, the difficult transition to sustainable forms of democracy in parts of in South East Asia the complete collapse into lawlessness in regions of Africa.
The mass membership model of political parties is anachronistic and has so far failed to adapt while political activism has gone viral with co-ordinated global protests against the tax affairs of companies like Amazon, Starbucks and Vodafone and occupations near the trading floors of the world’s financial centres. Violent demonstrations against austerity are now common place in the developed world and even the recent abdication of King Carlos in Spain drew thousands onto the streets, within hours of the announcement, in pro-republican rallies.
So, stability is in short supply and political risk is easier to come by than it was in 2008. Companies with a presence in more than one market are increasingly looking to public affairs companies to help fill the gaps created by the loss of the old certainties by providing local intelligence combined with a global analysis of how issues are playing in real time across international markets.
A recent survey conducted amongst 30 CEOs of leading international agencies, who are part of the Interel Global Partnership, showed that they expected significant increases in income over the next five years as a result of a more budget being made available from businesses that are anxious about three things: increasing political instability, creeping regulation post the financial crisis and a change in the basic requirements from business ie with a greater onus on the impact of technology on reputation and stakeholder management.
Multinational companies are increasingly looking for a kind of corporate Foreign Service which allows them to co-ordinate public affairs activities in all the markets where they do business.
The public affairs industry, particularly those of us with a global footprint, are learning fast that the changing political reality on the ground, where representative democracies haven’t yet caught up with the technical revolution, is seeing the electorate drift off into cyberspace without boundaries where the person who shouts loudest is the person being heard and therefore with the biggest influence.
Our job is still to help our clients get the right message to the right people at the right time. It’s just that the political arena and the stakeholder map look a little different now.
Fredrik Lofthagen is Interel Group CEO