International Insider: October 2020

02 Oct, 2020

Welcome to the Newest Edition of International Insider

Welcome to the Autumn edition of International Insider, the quarterly newsletter of the Public Affairs Council dedicated to all things global public affairs.

We’re delighted to introduce you to João Sousa. He recently took over the global public affairs practice here at the Council, and he’ll be your main point of contact for our upcoming global public affairs programs. To learn more about João and get in touch with him with any questions or suggestions, click here.

We would like to share a couple highlights of this newsletter with you.

First, we asked some of our members around the world to share their thoughts on how governments are dealing with the uncertainty linked to COVID-19, and how companies are adapting their public affairs strategies accordingly.

We’re also excited to share more about our upcoming workshops and webinars. We’ll be focusing on Global Issues Tracking, Global Stakeholder Engagement, Measuring Global Public Affairs and Public Affairs in China. And don’t miss our flagship conference European Digital Advocacy Summit (#EUDAS20), this year fully virtual, to learn more about the latest trends and the brightest ideas on digital advocacy and communication — in Europe and globally.

Global Public Affairs During and Beyond COVID-19

By Joao Sousa

How has the pandemic influenced transatlantic public affairs practices, and what are practitioners’ expectations for the months ahead? The Public Affairs Council conducted two surveys among our members in the United States and Europe to find out. Here are five things we learned.

The year 2020 will inevitably be remembered as the year COVID-19 entered our lives, and words like “pandemic,” “social distancing” and “quarantine” became part of our daily lexicon. The impact of the pandemic has been profound, and global. Organizations working in geographic locations as diverse as Canada, Kazakhstan and Brazil have all faced unprecedented challenges. With lockdowns in place, most businesses faced disruptions in their supply chains and a very different pattern of consumer behavior.  Many employees and teams had to adapt almost overnight to the reality of “teleworking” and find ways to collaborate online, both internally and externally.

The public affairs profession has not been a stranger to these turbulent and rapidly changing times. But what has the pandemic taught us about the way professionals have adapted? What lessons have they learned, and what are their expectations for the coming months? To better answer these questions, the Public Affairs Council surveyed our members in the United States (in May) and in Europe (in July-August)*.

Here are five takeaways.

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The rise of digital advocacy:

Public affairs professionals on both sides of the Atlantic have quickly adapted to social distancing, and digital tools are now the preferred way of engaging with policymakers and other external stakeholders. In the United States, over 70% of respondents in our survey believe that it will continue to be more difficult to meet with federal policy makers in person, even after the COVID-19 pandemic is over. In Europe, 85% agree the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the rise of digital tools, and that it will become increasingly common to schedule video conferences with European Union policymakers. Other digital advocacy tools deemed successful by European public affairs professionals were virtual events (59%) and social media engagement (35%).

But don’t discard traditional forms of lobbying just yet:

Even if an overwhelming majority of respondents agree that the pandemic brought about a decline in traditional forms of lobbying, practitioners shouldn’t discount “the old ways” just yet. Among our European respondents, more traditional and direct forms of advocacy, such as direct emails (61%), direct phone calls (50%), written briefings (37%) and public position papers (35%) remain important instruments in the practitioner’s toolkit, and their use during the lockdown was deemed successful.

(Virtual) teamwork makes the (real) dream work:

Digital tools have taken the leading role for external engagement, and the same can be said when it comes to internal communication. In Europe, a whopping 93% agree that it will become increasingly common for their organizations to communicate and coordinate internally using video conferences and other digital tools.

The impact on policy and politics:

Both in the United States and in Europe, most survey participants say the response to the COVID-19 pandemic will be the main issue driving policymakers in the months ahead. European practitioners agreed that this focus on responding to the fallout will affect how European Union policymakers will (or will not) be influenced by their organizations’ lobbying efforts. In the United States, 92% of participants predict that the pandemic will have a profound impact on the November presidential elections. At the policy level, three major changes that are expected are the approval of TARP-like loans to businesses (63%), a more restrictive trade policy (55%) and the passage of tougher regulations to protect the public’s health and safety (47%).

Keep calm, and carry on:

Despite the challenges, public affairs practitioners have a sense that their organizations have managed the pandemic well so far, despite the severity of the crisis. In Europe, an impressive 97% say their organization has handled the pandemic well. Which is not to say these have been, or will become, easy times. A large portion of participants report that their organizations have faced budget cuts (39% in the United States, as of May 2020, and 16% in Europe, as of August 2020), with others foreseeing the likelihood of cuts happening in the future.

The  pandemic has placed a premium on adaptability, digital proficiency, collaborative teamwork and effective political risk management. Public affairs teams that developed some or all of these traits are weathering the storm better than those that didn’t. But there is nothing innate about these skills — they can be learned and perfected, and there has never been a better time to do so. The Council will remain a source of executive education, peer learning and thought leadership to our members and the broader profession to help them successfully navigate the uncertainty of the times.

[* These results are based on two Public Affairs Council surveys. Results referring to the United States are based on responses from 245 US-based government affairs executives who completed an online poll in May 2020. Results referring to Europe are based on responses from 52 Europe-based executives between July and August 2020].

Working Through COVID-19 Around the World

We asked Public Affairs Council members operating in various geographic locations about the public affairs landscape amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Below they share tips for international companies in their respective regions on how to adapt in the months ahead.

Their responses reveal the differences between regions — and even within countries — on how the pandemic is being managed by public authorities worldwide. But they do have things in common. They all highlight the need for public affairs practitioners to be context-sensitive, intentional… and patient.

Canada

Andrew Retfalvi, Director and Associate General Manager,
Ontario (Global Public Affairs)

How do you assess the current public affairs environment in your region, given the COVID-19 pandemic and possible lockdowns?

Canada remains vigilant in efforts to stop COVID from spreading; our border with the United States remains closed to regular traffic, and quarantines are mandatory for those travelling abroad. Canadian decision-makers are taking this very seriously – case numbers have risen as business re-open and kids go back to school; as a result, some jurisdictions have put further restrictions on business, or in some cases, ordered them to temporarily close.

One important factor in Canada is our geography. Any public affairs approach can’t be a ‘one size fits all’ for the country, as there are significant differences in the way regions have handled COVID-19. Take Atlantic Canada for example. Comprised of four provinces with small populations, the region has created a ‘bubble’ severely limiting travel to the area. This has resulted in almost no cases in the area. More populated areas like Ontario and Quebec took a more open approach and saw significantly higher numbers.

That said, the Canadian environment is changing on a daily basis. Any public affairs strategy in Canada needs to be nimble and easily adaptable to changing circumstances.

What tip would you give to international companies operating in your region on how to successfully adapt to the present context in the months ahead?

Be proactive but be patient and manage expectations internally. Like many other jurisdictions, Canadian governments – federal, provincial and municipal – are only now starting to see the true effects of COVID-19 on our economy and society, and are driving policy changes accordingly. Government operating cycles have shifted – 2020 didn’t feature a typical budget cycle – and this has moved the goalposts when it comes to engaging government. Some routine things could take longer than usual. Having your organization’s leadership understand this is important.

Make your public affairs engagements even more purposeful, targeted and meaningful than usual. If your organization believes it can help in the efforts to contain and recover from COVID-19, by all means engage government. But don’t engage for the sake of engaging. Align your priorities with those of relevant decision-makers and seek on-the-ground advice to maximize chances for success.

Brazil

Julia Esmanhoto, Managing Partner (PATRI Public Affairs)

How do you assess the current public affairs environment in your region, given the COVID-19 pandemic and possible lockdowns?

Before the pandemic, Brazil was already a country with a huge number of bills, as well as normative and regulatory acts at the federal, state and local levels. This number has increased since the pandemic hit the country, although not everything is related to COVID-19. Amidst a plethora of legislation, there was even a conflict of decrees at the three levels of government on the list of essential activities, which cried out for Supreme Court intervention.

Even though Brazil is a country that values human interactions, there generally have not been problems maintaining and establishing engagement with policy makers virtually. A great majority of lawmakers are open to meetings with the private sector.

What tip would you give to international companies operating in your region on how to successfully adapt to the present context in the months ahead?

It has become even more challenging to cut through the noise to manage and filter what impacts your business. In addition, the increasingly polarized political landscape requires extra attention to not associate your brand with either side of the aisle. The digital environment can be tricky in terms of compliance since it is still poorly regulated and there is no control, for example, on whether the content is being recorded or if your information may be misused.

This increases the need for management of the political environment to position your company in an increasingly polarized, virtual and uncontrolled environment.

Mexico, Central & South America

Gustavo Almaraz, Executive Director (Grupo Estratégia Politica)

How do you assess the current public affairs environment in your region, given the COVID-19 pandemic and possible lockdowns?

Public Affairs has become an essential activity during the pandemic. The need for permanent and timely tracking of official information has become clearer for all kinds of businesses. Our strategies should aim to provide certainty to the private sector’s work and to foster a better understanding of the government’s actions.

The amount of information that arises around COVID-19 creates a challenging situation for our industry. More than ever, we have the opportunity to fill in gaps. We must also acknowledge the responsibility we have in our work.

What tip would you give to international companies operating in your region on how to successfully adapt to the present context in the months ahead?

Understanding the authorities’ perspective and incentives as well as building strategic alliances are two key actions that can help companies anticipate scenarios and successfully operate in the region. The uncertainty we are facing pushes us to think of flexible and innovative strategies. It is really important to be fully aware of all relevant actors and build bridges. Having a thorough analysis of each stakeholder’s relevance is more important than ever.

Russia, Southern Caucasus and Central Asia

Evgeny Roshkov, Executive Partner (Kesarev Consulting)

How do you assess the current public affairs environment in your region, given the COVID-19 pandemic and possible lockdowns?

In Moscow, the Russian national government agencies as well as the Eurasian Economic Commission, which covers the work of five countries including members of the Eurasian Economic Union, are back from the lockdowns. Despite the fact Russia now faces a second wave of the pandemic – and had 11 615 infected on Oct.6 which is very close to the daily record Russia had in May 11 656 – this approach of governmental bodies is unlikely to change in the short term. Amid the increased risks of economic instability which should make the economic cost of any potential second wave of restrictions devastating the state will try to ensure officials will continue the work.

In Central and Eastern Europe, South Caucasus and Central Asia, working activities have also been suspended in this ‘new normal’ for months now. There are occasional meetings and mask-to-mask engagement, but most conversations happen virtually. The lack of networking has made it difficult to cultivate new relationships with prospects and stakeholders.

In Central and Eastern Europe, South Caucasus and Central Asia, working activities have also been suspended in this ‘new normal’ for months now. There are occasional meetings and mask-to-mask engagement, but most conversations happen virtually. The lack of networking has made it difficult to cultivate new relationships with prospects and stakeholders.

What tip would you give to international companies operating in your region on how to successfully adapt to the present context in the months ahead?

The ongoing pandemic and related crisis are now central to all government agendas, as they are to varying degrees across the business community. Interaction with state authorities needs to be viewed through this prism. Businesses may re-evaluate their objectives and show how they can support the recovery effort, both on a health and economic footing. This might require delaying some policy initiatives until further into the recovery cycle, perhaps substituting them for more pressing and nationally relevant initiatives.

Overall, the main efforts of public affairs specialists should be aimed at preventive measures that reduce the risks of force majeure situations: monitoring the positions of governmental and non-governmental stakeholders in areas of interest, adequate assessment of political and economic risks and developing a scenario-based response plan.

East Asia (Japan and South Korea)

James Fatheree, Executive Director – Washington (GR Group Asia)

How do you assess the current public affairs environment in your region, given the COVID-19 pandemic and possible lockdowns?

Although the situation is changing day by day, Seoul and Tokyo are clearly far more open than Washington, D.C. The Korean and Japanese governments remain intensely focused on managing and minimizing the health and economic damage from COVID-19. While high-level attention has been focused on the impacts of the pandemic, ongoing initiatives remain on track. There are some challenges for companies in terms of new regulations, restrictions on the movement of people in and out of country, etc. But there are also many opportunities to provide solutions – health, technology, hygiene and public safety – to central and local governments. In Japan the transition from Shinzo Abe to Yoshihide Suga as Prime Minister is not likely to have significant impact. There are some key ministers carrying over, and policy continuity is the key theme.

What tip would you give to international companies operating in your region on how to successfully adapt to the present context in the months ahead?

Having local staff or consultants who can stay on top of developments in regulations, politics, policies and procurement opportunities is critical, as much is in flux. The Japanese and Korean governments are adapting well to online engagement, so finding ways to maintain contact virtually, if not in person, is important. Presenting issues, ideally with solutions, that are connected to the broader context of mitigating health impact or supporting economic growth is likely to resonate. However, messaging must be compelling and plausible.

Upcoming Executive Education Programs in 2020

 

Virtual Workshop: Global Issues Tracking
Nov 12 | 9 a.m. – 11:15 a.m. ET | Virtual
Ensure your global public affairs function can identify, track and manage issues in key markets. Join the Council to learn how organizations conceptualize, construct, execute and assess their issues management and tracking plans.

 

Virtual Workshop: Global Stakeholder Engagement
Nov 12 | 1 p.m. – 3:15 p.m. ET | Virtual
Stakeholders and key influencers can make or break your public affairs efforts. How do you keep track and manage your relationships on a global scale?

 

Virtual Workshop: Measurement and Numbers for Global Public Affairs
Nov 18 | 10 a.m. – 12:15 p.m. ET | Virtual
Quantifying your work and getting in-house buy-in is often half of the battle for global public affairs functions. This workshop will show you how to demonstrate the value of your work.

 

Webinar: Public Affairs in China
Dec 03 | 11 a.m. − 12 p.m. ET | Virtual
Join us for our annual briefing on China to learn more about the public affairs landscape and how to adjust your strategy to the nuances of the current political and economic environment.

 

Conference: European Digital Advocacy Summit
Dec 09 – 10 | Virtual
The new reality that emerged with the COVID-19 pandemic has placed a premium on the mastery of digital advocacy and communication tools. Organizations and individuals can no longer afford to rely on traditional tools alone — digital is now critical to success in public affairs.

Join our flagship digital conference #EUDAS20 to learn more about the latest trends and brightest ideas on digital advocacy and communication — in Europe and globally.

More details soon, but you can already learn more about it here.

Further Reading Ideas for Public Affairs Professionals

Undecided about what to read next? Here are some ideas for book-loving public affairs professionals.

Would you like to recommend a book that has influenced the way you think about, and practice, public affairs? Drop me a line at jsousa@pac.org.

 

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