Why Public Affairs Must Break From Its Silo
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Why Public Affairs Must Break From Its Silo

Public affairs practitioners, in many cases still, are notoriously bad at admitting that anyone can help them do anything.

Holmes Report

Over the last twenty years communications has changed in many dimensions but I think the most notable aspect has been the shift from siloed, discipline-specific activity towards a more complementary approach where all specialisations work together supportively. This is what we have come to know as integrated communications and it is, quite frankly, the only way that modern communications can be effective.

The motivation for this is simple; campaigns are far more effective and likely to deliver the desired business outcome if the various disciplines work together. The goal should be the same regardless of whether you sit in public affairs (PA), public relations or internal communications. The trick, people began to understand, is to ensure that you have the right mix of the right communications skills for the project deployed in the right way, to achieve a positive result.

Some disciplines have been better at integration than others and corporate public relations has arguably led the way by embracing various new opportunities, many of which are enabled by digital platforms. Public affairs practitioners, on the other hand has been, and in many cases still is, notoriously bad at admitting that anyone can help it do anything.

This attitude has had two consequences. The first has been a regular unwillingness from some public affairs professionals to use other communications skills in support of their objectives. This is bizarre. At the most basic level, a public affairs professional’s job is to influence stakeholders; politicians and civil servants being at the top of the list. Why then, as one example, would they not seek to use media relations to impact the main tool that these targets consume and adjust their behaviour to?

The second impact of this insular mentality has been a lack of articulation of what public affairs can contribute to in an integrated communications programme. Whilst dependent on the specific campaign objectives, the benefits PA can bring to the table are substantial.

In terms of PR for example, public affairs activity can be an excellent source of content generation, or the basis of a media ‘hook’ around which to frame other key messages. For marketing it can provide in-roads to government markets for new products and services, and for sales teams it can help the effective identification, targeting and then engagement of procurement decision makers. In internal communications, public affairs can help to ensure that all stakeholders from unions to management are engaged in the right way with the right messages.

Furthermore, with change management, the effective engagement with additional, often overlooked, stakeholders, such as local and national legislators can be crucial in preventing potential threats to licences to operate or adverse media stories from un-consulted and disgruntled politicos. The same is true for crisis communications and reputation management. Companies who communicate in this manner stand out: Dupont’s US Global Food Security campaign and Queen’s University Belfast’s Higher Education Funding Campaign being great examples.

Broadly speaking, public affairs can contribute something of relevance and value to most campaigns; it is simply a case of PA professionals working closer with their partners in communications to share and explain their skillsets and what they can achieve. This will of course can a gradual, but cumulative processes across teams which can be made quicker if projects that can be worked on in an integrated way are initially identified, allowing practical learning.

This is not to say, however, that the effort should simply be one-sided. There is a responsibility for all communications professionals to learn skills outside their specialisations and also to similarly share their own expertise and experience. The walls between communications disciplines are by and large manufactured, and need to be torn down.

This brings us onto interesting questions about the future and the nature of the communications professional. Will it be sufficient in a decade’s time to still be discipline-specific or will consultants require a good understanding of the broad range of tools available to them to get the client the best possible result?

Whilst individuals will always have particular areas of specialisation and interest, why should clients be denied a consultancy service which doesn’t understand the bigger communications picture, or worse still, is unable to execute its potential?

When I’ve had conversations with public affairs colleagues about a movement towards more converged communications, many have rolled their eyes. I’ve never quite understood why. Looking at it from the client side, who would you rather have developing and executing your communications strategy?

A group of skill-specific individuals, thrown together for a project, or an actual team of holistic communications professionals, with their own specialisations, who understand all the potential tools available to them and how they can be deployed for the benefit of their client? I know who I’d choose.

John Stanley is a senior consultant at Sermelo, based in London.


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