And, more important, what we can do about them
(Part 2 of 2 in our Disruptors series)

Sheree Anne Kelly
Senior Vice President, Public Affairs Council

In the first part of our series on public affairs disruptors, we examined how Disruptor #1, millennials, and Disruptor #2, low trust in big institutions, are fueling changes and challenges across the profession.

In this second and final part, we analyze how three additional disruptors are influencing public affairs.

Disruptor #3: Political Unpredictability

Pollsters and the media got the U.S. 2016 presidential election wrong. Really wrong. Few experts predicted a Trump victory, so the Nov. 8 results left many people feeling shocked, asking, “How did this happen?” Was it media bias? Did the D.C. “bubble” cause inside-the-Beltway navel-gazing when the rest of the country was experiencing a seismic shift in attitudes and political beliefs? Or perhaps it was the misconception of the values important to the working class?

In addition to unpredictable elections, we’re seeing shifts in political party positions on major issues. For organizations that have counted on consistent political allies, or built relationships on one side of the aisle, this new dynamic means your old plan doesn’t work anymore.

The rise of populism is certainly impacting public policy, both domestic and foreign. This is not just a U.S. phenomenon. European elections have revealed populist sway with Brexit, and we’re waiting to see what comes from the pending high-stakes elections in France and Germany.

In recent years, budgets and staffing shifted from a primary focus on Washington-based government affairs to increased resourcing for state and local activities. With a Trump administration, we’re already seeing the pendulum swing back to federal-level engagement.

How do you resource your function for success? And how can you manage a world that has become inherently less predictable?

First, the good news — the role of public affairs has never been more important.

According to a 2016 McKinsey survey, How to Reinvent the External-Affairs Function, external affairs is an increasing priority for CEOs and boards of directors. And that makes sense. Nonmarket forces play a significant role in businesses’ bottom lines, and public affairs impacts how those forces affect your ability to compete and conduct business.

One way to monitor and engage in multiple geographies is to leverage consultants. According to The State of Corporate Public Affairs 2014-2015, budgets for public affairs consultants either remained steady (45% of respondents) or increased (38%) over the previous three years. Only 16 percent decreased the budget for contract help. Not only do consultants bring unique expertise, strong relationships and strategic counsel, but contracts can be flexible, allowing you to scale them up or down to meet changing needs. Trusted Advisors, another report available free from the Foundation for Public Affairs, provides tips on hiring and managing consultants.

In addition to consultants, coalitions can be effective vehicles for broadening public policy support. When one organization voices an opinion, it may sound self-serving. Alliances increase your reach and volume. Ideally, finding uncommon bedfellows and not relying solely on industry peers will avoid giving the impression that your policy position only benefits your industry. NGOs, other nonprofits and think tanks can make outstanding partners, giving you traction in an increasingly difficult political environment.

In addition to unpredictable elections, we’re seeing shifts in political party positions on major issues. For organizations that have counted on consistent political allies, or built relationships on one side of the aisle, this new dynamic means your old plan doesn’t work anymore.

Finally, one way to bring some order to the current state of policy chaos is to develop a strong issues management system that ensures that your time and resources are focused on issues of greatest importance to your organization. This process makes your public affairs more proactive and reduces firefighting on issues that seem to appear out of nowhere. Here’s a two-minute video in which I outline the basic principles for building a strong issues management system.

Disruptor #4: Noise

We live in the noisiest media environment in history. Not only are traditional media outlets pouring out more stories, but smartphones make everyone his or her own news outlet. There’s also growing social media engagement on hundreds of platforms, text alerts and a 24-hour news cycle. We’ve all experienced fake news, making us second-guess sources and content. There’s also a proliferation of sponsored content, which has yielded mixed results for effectiveness. And much of the discourse is far from calm and thoughtful. Anger and divisive commentary get more clicks. That’s a lot of clamor.

We’re communicators, and we’re trying to reach audiences that are already self-selecting news sources and information channels. There’s a real concern that the public will get fed up with the noise. While I don’t predict an imminent tossing of smartphones into the ocean, burnout and total tuneout are real possibilities.

The reality for public affairs is that you aren’t likely to get public traction on small or medium-size issues — unless you can tie them to topics already in the spotlight. Big issues such as tax, trade, the environment and immigration are your best hopes for large-scale public interest.

Grassroots advocacy can be key to break through the noise. A 2017 study from the Congressional Management Foundation surveying congressional staff reveals that authentic constituent contact is the most powerful catalyst when a legislator has yet to take a position on legislation. It adds voices to your cause, especially if advocates are clustered in one legislative district.

After harnessing champions, taking a more targeted campaign approach will yield better results. Advocacy aimed broadly at legislative or public audiences divests your energy and resources. Precise targeting is the best use of your time and money. Who are your influentials, and those influencing them? Focus there. Whether it’s through digital advertising or getting creative with platforms for your messages (you might be surprised how many members of Congress are on Snapchat, plus both corporations and associations have had success on Twitter), you can stand out in the noise with the right messages, messengers and media.

Disruptor #5: Corporate Engagement on Social Issues

It’s clear that expectations are increasing for corporations to help solve social problems. But there’s a new public expectation that companies should share the values of their customers and employees. This goes beyond traditional corporate responsibility programs. Employees and the public want companies to take a stand on social issues.

In July 2016 we surveyed 92 corporations to find out more about this trend. Sixty percent indicated that pressure to engage on social issues has increased over the past three years. Forty percent saw no change. That means none of the companies saw a decrease in pressure to take action. We asked respondents what they anticipated in the next three years. Seventy-four percent expected an increase in pressure, 25 percent expected status quo, and none expected a decrease. The pressure is real and growing.

Our 2016 Public Affairs Pulse Survey drilled into this topic further. This nationwide poll found that most Americans find discrimination in all its major forms to be a serious problem. And the public supports greater efforts from business to prevent and address it.

Of course, engaging on a specific social issue can help or hurt a company depending on the views of internal and external stakeholders. Does this issue link closely to your corporate values? Does it significantly affect your workforce, core customers, shareholders or supply chain? After assessing the business connection and potential impacts, you’ll want to calibrate your involvement. If you choose to engage, our July survey noted that the most common strategy for social issue advocacy was joining a coalition (64 % of companies). In addition, 51 percent of surveyed corporations lobbied at the state and local levels, 49 percent issued a press release, 45 percent lobbied at the federal level, 43 percent signed a petition and 40 percent took a formal policy position.

If a company is going to take a stand on a social issue, the message is almost undoubtedly going to come from the C-suite. While on many policy issues a grassroots supporter is the best messenger, on major social issues, leadership from the top can be powerful. The free research report Taking It to the Top: Engaging Corporate Leadership in Public Policy shares case studies, tips and tools to help your senior leadership craft a winning strategy for engagement.

So those are the five biggest disruptors impacting public affairs that I’ve been tracking. What other disruptors (and/or solutions) are you seeing? I would love to hear your views.

Want More Information on This Topic?

Contact Sheree Anne Kelly, senior vice president.

Additional Resources

Top Disruptors Impacting Public Affairs, Part 1

Want to hear Sheree Anne discussing the top political disruptors? Check out video files from the February 2017 issue of Impact.


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