Skip to main content

Five Opportunities for Global Teams in 2023

Five Opportunities for Global Teams in 2023

February 2023

João Sousa
Managing Director, European Office
Public Affairs Council

It has become commonplace to say the world is going through “times of uncertainty.” Adapting to the “new normal” and “navigating unprecedented turbulence” have become quasi mandatory terms in strategic papers, board meetings and political speeches. But this time, it feels that the expression does capture the Zeitgeist: rarely in the 21st century has uncertainty looked more certain than today.

The COVID-19 pandemic confronted us all – citizens, professionals, businesses leaders, political decision-makers – with a reality most of us had never faced in our lifetime. Just as those harsh days were lessening, the Russian invasion of Ukraine once again showed that peace can never be taken for granted and the European continent once again saw the face of war. The conflict – still ongoing – brought with it not only incalculable human tragedy but also economic and political consequences – such as energy insecurity in Europe and food insecurity in Africa and other parts of the world. And let’s not forget the heightened tensions and trade disputes between world powers in recent years.

Last, but certainly not least, a threat of a perhaps even more global and existential nature has been extending its cloud over politics, business and society. We’re talking about climate change and all the risks associated with it, which apply to every single human on our planet. And the list could go on.

It’s a grim picture to kick off a new year, but there is good news, too. As several studies indicate, including this one from the Public Affairs Council, businesses are increasingly trusted by the public as trust in institutions such as government and the media declines. For many companies, this means they are increasingly well placed to engage on social issues and play a stronger role in helping address global problems. As an inherently external facing function, public affairs teams can be instrumental in this process.

So, what might public affairs teams expect from 2023, what are some of the rising challenges and how can they address them?

Here are five ideas:

1. Geopolitics is back, and it matters!

Many analysts have discussed the decline of the so-called “West” and of the American-led global order in recent years. While stories of the decline of the West’s absolute economic, political and military power are probably incorrect, or at least they’re not backed by the data, it’s certainly true that other key players are emerging and increasingly important. The rise of China, India and other nations means that a multipolar order is slowly replacing the previous unipolar world and challenging the so-far undisputed ability by Washington D.C., and Brussels to impose global political agendas, regulatory standards and economic priorities.

This means these two capitals are no longer the exclusive centers of political and regulatory power, even if they remain leaders in this space. But if you want to understand the challenges and opportunities your global organization will face in the years ahead, you need to know – in addition to Washington and Brussels – what the political priorities are in European capitals outside Brussels, as well as in global locations such as Beijing, Brasilia, Ankara, New Delhi, Addis Ababa, amongst others.

What does this mean for public affairs teams?

Your role as the eyes and ears of your C-suite will be increasingly valued, as well as your ability to anticipate risks and threats. Understanding the political dimensions of your business operations and making sure you have the diverse staff and expertise to decode different cultures, messages and political landscapes will be a valuable asset.

2. The fragmentation of issues and living with complexity

The issues that global public affairs teams are going to deal with will keep moving and changing at global, regional and local levels. Sustainability, ESG, the energy transition, and coping with a global pandemic or a new war in Europe were not particularly high on the radar five to 10 years ago, but these issues are now mobilizing governments, companies and public opinion in an unprecedented way.

A case in point is sustainability and ESG. They will likely remain key issues on the global agenda, but it’s not perceived equally everywhere. Most U.S. and EU-based public affairs teams are facing rising public and government expectations on their ESG performance and will likely continue working hard to comply with some of the most ambitious regulations on sustainability, carbon emissions and a range of other related issues. At the same time, other regions will look at this multifaceted problem through different lenses, as the recent United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27) in Egypt and others prior to it have shown. The point is that the ability by Washington or Brussels to impose an agenda globally is diminished, and emerging centers of political and regulatory power have different priorities. This has an impact on how a global company engages with issues and stakeholders around the world.

Again, what does this mean for public affairs teams?

Several things. If you’re a global company, you will need to get used to living in a global environment that is increasingly fragmented, and where the political priorities in one region might be entirely different from the priorities in another. The same is true for the engagement strategies you will need to adopt. It’s critical to have local capacity to track issues, policies and government priorities, and to keep your ears close to the ground when it comes to identifying emerging issues. You’ll need to be flexible in your global strategy to allow for local responses to local problems, while keeping the guiding principles of your global strategy. This also calls for prudence when setting overly ambitious goals and how you frame success internally.

3. The way people meet and interact is changing

It is right in front of us, and research shows it: the ways in which we meet and interact with each other are changing, and few expect things to go back to what they were. Our latest “Trends in European Public Affairs Survey report,” published in September 2022, is clear: Lobbying is happening increasingly through online tools and platforms, especially through virtual meetings. Not surprisingly, an overwhelming majority of respondents (86%) agree that COVID-19 restrictions have brought about a decline in traditional lobbying and an increase in the use of digital tools.

Larger events are also changing. In-person event registrations are still behind pre-pandemic numbers, and it’s increasingly normal for many professionals to work from home a few days per week, while reserving “office days” to meet colleagues in-person or to attend select external meetings.

This has a big impact on the way public affairs and communication teams engage with their stakeholders. It even has the potential to shape the way we think about advocacy now and in the future. Who will want to organize a large conference, town hall, trade show or other large in-person gathering if there is a high risk of low participation?

Teams need to re-think the way they engage with their stakeholders: in-person, virtually, or hybrid. As the nature of personal interaction changes and the lobbying landscape gets increasingly crowded, focusing on curating outreach to your individual stakeholders, and preferring quality over quantity, are the best ways to stand out.

4. Digital is evolving fast, and you need to keep up!

Digital is everywhere. Consider, for example, that there are only a handful of governments in the world that do not yet have an account on Twitter (and if these figures caught your attention, you might be interested in recent studies from Twiplomacy). Or imagine all the potential that artificial intelligence (AI) tools such as ChatGPT have for making the work of public affairs professionals easier and more effective, while enabling them to have more time for creative and strategic thinking. An upcoming hybrid workshop in the Public Affairs Council’s Brussels office takes a deeper look
at this.

On a different note, think about how stakeholder engagement changes when over 80% of public affairs professionals in Europe (as per our recent survey cited above) say that virtual meetings will continue to be their preferred tool to engage with policy-makers and their staff (the number is similar in the U.S.).

Every aspect of public affairs work is subject to technological change and teams need to use it to their advantage. On the listening front, data and software will become ever more important for stakeholder mapping, issues management, network analysis, measuring impact, identifying key opinion makers and a lot more. Digital tools and AI will be indispensable to translate massive amounts of data into actionable intelligence.

On the engagement front, using platforms such as Twitter or LinkedIn to engage with your stakeholders is nothing new, but you will need to be constantly thinking about what are the best platforms to engage with your audience. Spoiler alert, it’s always the ones where your audience lives.

5. The skills of the future: Out with the old, in with the new … and the not so new

The public affairs function is uniquely well placed to navigate uncertainty. That said, professionals in our field need to continue polishing skills to keep up with the pace of change and maintain this head start.

Soft skills will remain, of course, very important, perhaps even more so, when it comes to managing complexity, building alliances, devising strategies or solving difficult problems. Interpersonal communication, persuasion, storytelling, the ability to negotiate and empathize, public speaking — these are and will remain key competencies for public affairs professionals because they are the foundation of human communication, which in turn is the foundation for how we relate to and persuade each other.

But they are not enough, and we will need to engage in a lifelong process of acquiring new competencies, especially when it comes to the use of new technologies. As I’ve heard recently, AI will likely never replace a human, but another person who is able to use AI effectively might. This means first and foremost that public affairs professionals need to adopt a mindset of continuous learning and adapting. I have no doubt that, equipped with these skills and mindset, the profession is well placed to play a decisive role in shaping the future in a positive way for businesses and society, whatever that future might bring.

While it’s impossible to predict the future, we can assume it will be in constant flux. The five ideas above will hopefully help global public affairs leaders think about some of the key challenges they might face in the years ahead, and how they can play an important role in steering their teams and companies through what are, indeed, “times of uncertainty.”

Understanding the political dimensions of your business operations and making sure you have the diverse staff and expertise to decode different cultures, messages and political landscapes will be a valuable asset.

Sign Up For Impact

Have the monthly Impact Newsletter emailed to you.

Featured Event

The leading annual event for digital comms and advocacy professionals. Hear new strategies, and case studies for energizing grassroots and policy campaigns.

Washington, D.C. | June 10, 2024