Global Public Affairs During and Beyond COVID-19

28 Oct, 2020

Global Public Affairs During and Beyond COVID-19

October 28, 2020

By João Sousa
Senior Manager, European Office
Public Affairs Council

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.

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].