The public policy environment is still a challenging one for companies, with activists—and their allies in politics—looking for action on issues ranging from environmental impact to healthcare costs to financial services reform. But companies have a wider range of tools available to help them respond to all this activism.
Here are five trends the Holmes Report has identified as being of particular importance for the public affairs world this year:
1. Election fever
The US primary season has not even started yet, and already news organizations are filled with speculation about the potential Republican nominees. But in the UK, a general election is looming.
“UK public affairs in 2015 will undoubtedly be dominated by the general election,” says Kevin Bell, head of the global public affairs practice at Burson-Marsteller. “For candidates and political parties, there is no substitute for knocking on doors and meeting the electorate,” he says, but there are new tools available.
“In our industry, this will be the first social media election,” Bell says. “Clients of all types should be encouraged onto social media platforms to monitor, asses and engage in the debate. Being active on social media will complement their more traditional public affairs activities. I half expect an agency to develop a Tinder-like app for prospective parliamentary candidates. Much racier than playing cards, don’t you think?”
Last year’s Indian elections may provide a clue as to some of the techniques. Amit Misra, who heads MSLGroup’s public affairs practice in Asia, says the country witnessed its first truly integrated campaign: digital outreach, traditional outreach and even sophisticated data and co-related messaging.
And if the campaign will be interesting, the aftermath may be fascinating.
Adds Charles Lewington of Hanover Communications: “A messy general election outcome in the UK in May will drive public affairs activity, especially around corporate taxation and M&A. Continuing Eurozone woes will increase tension between national governments, the Commission and Parliament. A fascinating and complicated year.”
2. Greater ntegration
The most important trend in public affairs in 2015 will be an accelerated move toward more integrated campaigns, not only in Washington, but also in political capitals around the globe, says Jamie Moeller, head of the public affairs practice at Ogilvy PR. “Traditional lobbying is not going away, but as politics has become increasingly polarized wielding influence effectively now requires the deployment and integration of all of the tools of modern communications.”
Those tools, he says, have become significantly more effective and accessible: the ability to micro target and narrowcast, measure and modify communications in real time has never been greater or more important.
“This represents a sea change in the way organizations influence policy decisions and a trend that is here to stay,” Moeller says. “Organizations that will succeed in influencing policy outcomes in 2015 will use the full array of modern communications tools—earned media, targeted digital advertising, social media engagement and content. Each of these elements must be integrated within an overarching political strategy to ensure success.”
Thomas Tindemans, who heads the public affairs practice at Hill+Knowlton Strategies, agrees: “Companies and organisations need a fully integrated public affairs and communications approach: what the public thinks of you influences greatly how policy makers approach regulation that affects the business. Best example: the tax debates around fairness and the need to fund government services that also benefit companies.”
3. A more global approach
It’s a cliché that all politics is local, but a global perspective is increasingly important. That’s because issues that emerge in one country can quickly become lightning rods for global criticism, with social media in particular allowing citizens around the world to see how companies are behaving in far-flung jurisdictions.
“Although PA advice necessarily has to focus on the local situation of the market or the political entity in which it is delivered, the impact travels globally,” says Tindemans. “Regulatory developments in one country are traveling fast across the globe. The reputation of an organisation heavily depends on the behaviour in local situations, but the regulatory consequences have a worldwide impact. Health, food, labour standards, environmental issues come to mind.
“So, companies and organisations need to communicate consistently at all levels, domestic, regional, global. Coherent positions have to be communicated to authorities and the public at all these levels.”
4. Taking a stand
Political issues are under discussion in board rooms like never before—and not just because of regulatory or legislative change. Some companies are finding that taking a stand on an issue helps them connect with their consumers, while others find themselves being dragged into debates they would rather have nothing to do with.
“Increasingly, companies are weighing in on political and social issues,” says Tanya Meck, managing director at Global Strategy Group. “Whether it’s on immigration reform or the environment, we’re seeing corporations playing a real and direct role in these conversations both at the policy level and by engaging their audiences on these public positions.”
GSG’s data shows that the American public is becoming more receptive to this type of corporate behavior: in fact, they believe companies can and should effect social change.
“Whether this is in response to disillusionment with elected officials and gridlock in Washington, or to some other factors, companies have an opportunity to go beyond traditional CSR programs to build their reputations,” says Meck. “Smart companies will be taking a hard look at their core audiences and their attitudes—on a segmented and microtargeted level—to understand where their reputational opportunities are in 2015.”
Some of this is generational.
“It is the millennial generation that is now having a huge impact on politics, economics and culture while previous generations and their approach are increasingly taking a back seat,” Misra says. “Technology is empowering people and creating new pressure groups overnight and it is now incumbent upon us to match their pace and make sense of the change in order to provide credible counsel to our clients.”
5. Some big issues
Monitoring social media makes it possible for public affairs professionals to anticipate some of specific issues that will dominate the agenda in 2015.
“Environmentalists’ search optimization and social media strategies show that their focus will begin to shift to offshore drilling once the Keystone pipeline is resolved one way or another,” says Richard Levick, who heads the Washington firm that bears his name. “If past is prologue, the offshore extraction industry will be in no better position to control the narrative than their brethren in Canada.”
In the food realm, “while GMOs will certainly remain a hot issue, digital chatter tells us that sugar will replace fat and carbs as food’s next boogeyman,” Levicks says, while in the financial sector, “non-bank lenders are an increasingly common source of critical social conversations. No matter how much good some of these companies do in saving homes and lending money to veterans or students, they are increasingly finding themselves adorned with the black hat.”
Having said all that, big events always have the potential to shift the debate in unexpected direction.
Says Tindemans: “PA agendas are overturned by crises and by public scrutiny. Public and political priorities change overnight when faced with major impactful events. Security issues dominate agendas because of terrorist attacks – and this influences debates on wider policy issues, such as privacy, free movement, and data protection.”