What does best in class public affairs look like?

October 24, 2011 at 1:44 pm 4 comments

Last week I came up with some top line thoughts on what a best in class public affairs function looks like in a Brussels context. I’ve based it on my experience in the market over the last decade. For some I am hoping it’s blindingly obvious, but I think it’s a point of view that could serve as a useful refresher of where we all want to be.

In summary it is something along the lines of proactive, externally focused and all about measurable outcomes. Being a consultant I felt obliged to develop a bit more than a sentence. Hence the nine things that I think effective public affairs functions do well:

1. Provide insights

The only thing public affairs functions have to make their case is the insights that they bring. Best in class public affairs functions have ready access to data, examples, and thoughts and are able to turn these into insights that are timely, relevant and useful for policymakers and wider stakeholders who are figuring out public policy. These folks are of course intelligent beings and will listen to others (with different facts, data, and thoughts) before making up their own minds.

2. Focus on policy formulation

Effective public affairs functions focus on the policy formulation stage more often than not rather than the legislative phase. Once the proposal is out you’re playing at the margins. Not where best in class finds itself that often (see this post on why successful public affairs should be like a Tom Cruise movie).

3. Develop solutions

Successful public affairs functions look to bring solutions to policymakers for the challenges that European society faces. Saying no aint an option, saying this is a more effective way to get to where we all want to be may well be.   

4. Conduct dialogue

Top of the class functions also have the mandate within their own organizations to be able to work on solutions with policymakers and stakeholders, even if their own position is not 100% defined. Policymaking is a process, if you can only start and end with the same position and all you can do is repeat it you’re of little use to all concerned once they’ve read your position paper.

5. Integrate all forms of communications

World class public affairs functions have the mandate and expertise to use all forms of communications in a public affairs context, from media and online to third party mobilization and one-on-one meetings. As our EP Digital Trends survey has shown, the folks you’re seeking to talk to get their information from all sorts of places (as you and everyone else on the planet does). The best in class public affairs functions get this and don’t see their role as restricted to one tactic (meeting people) but focus on how best to achieve the outcome.

6. Remain connected internally

Great public affairs functions are connected within their business in order to get the insights needed to create useful policy thoughts. They also have a functioning public affairs network across European countries that can do all of the other eight points– after all the position of one half of our legislature and much more besides is actually decided in national capitals.

7. Seek out partners

Brussels is based on consensus. As such, to be on top of your game you’re going to have to be able to find and motivate partners within industry, civil society and elsewhere of the merits of your insights and the solution you’re proposing.

8. Value reputation

Best in class functions are part of businesses that care about what they do and care about what people say about what they do. While the strategic direction of an organization is not normally decided by its public affairs function and the value that an organization places on the external world depends on many factors, I think effective functions bring the outside inside and can be an agent for change within their own organizations as much as outside it.

9. Provide value to the business

Really great public affairs functions are relevant to their businesses. What they do is relevant, timely and useful to the continued success of their organizations. What the EP Committee said today was really interesting to EU geeks like us, but a best in class function is able to say why it’s important for their organization, what impact it’s likely to have going forward and what they’re going to do about it. They answer the “so what” question on a daily basis.

James

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Ron  |  October 24, 2011 at 2:52 pm

    Judging from this post, the best in class public affairs is based on buzzwordish talk that can easily be reshuffled and would still mean almost nothing concrete…

    Reply
  • 2. fhbrussels  |  October 24, 2011 at 6:11 pm

    Ron,

    You’re entitled to your opinion but I beg to differ. Yes, there are some buzzwords in there (which industry does not have them?) but I think it’s a fair list of what makes a good public affairs function in Brussels and indeed good communications practice overall. They’re all pretty tangible things as far as I’m concerned – I’ve seen organisations with them and without some of them in the time I’ve been here.

    James

    Reply
  • 3. Ron  |  October 24, 2011 at 6:42 pm

    Well, I’m referring to sentences like this one:

    “Successful public affairs functions look to bring solutions to policymakers for the challenges that European society faces.”

    “Best in class functions are part of businesses that care about what they do and care about what people say about what they do.”

    “Great public affairs functions are connected within their business in order to get the insights needed to create useful policy thoughts.”

    Those sentence sound like textbook quotes and not like insights from real processes. One could also see that when several of your general points are turned to the opposite, showing that since they opposite sounds stupid they actually say rather common-place things:

    1) Don’t provide any insights
    2) Be too late with your efforts
    3) Never think of solutions
    4) Be deaf to what others say
    5) Don’t make use of useful communication channels
    6) Ignore crucial resources you have in your organisation
    7) Work alone and don’t seek partners
    8) Make everybody hate you
    9) Be of no added value for your custumers

    I think it would have served the purpose better to work with real-life examples to make your point, not general headings with equally general summaries. Especially if you say that you have experienced that these principles are not respected although they appear so common-place it would be more interesting to hear “why” they are sometimes/often ignored.

    Reply
    • 4. fhbrussels  |  October 24, 2011 at 9:08 pm

      Ron,

      Thanks for giving this further consideration. Yep, the post is top line as that’s what it was supposed to be (see first para). Thanks for the suggestion about the textbook, I’ll give it due consideration and if I find time between work and three kids I’ll get you a signed copy 😉

      You’re of course spot on: it is all pretty much common sense. This should not be a surprise – public affairs and communications is after all just that. There is no magic box I’m afraid and thankfully it ain’t astro-physics as I dropped all sciences at the age of sixteen and would therefore be rubbish at it. However, as we all know common sense can be ignored for all kinds of reasons and in my experience it is quite often is. Hence this post is a ‘refresher’ for some and blindingly obvious for others (as I think I said in the post?). I’m not saying that organisations don’t do all these things – most do at some point, but they all don’t certainly don’t do them well all the time.

      Rather than go through each (time is short and my nearest and dearest may wish to see me tonight for at least a few minutes and to be honest they are probably worth blog posts on their own), let me illustrate with one or two from the list in no particular order:

      5.) Seems obvious but media relations not to mention social media is sometimes not the responsibility of the people doing the government relations/public affairs. Especially when we talk about a national level and we’re operating at an EU level – see my lament here on this very point. Clearly this has the potential to having a bearing on effectiveness.

      3.) Solutions are often harder than opposing something. Much easier to react than to go away and think and come back with something that stands up to scrutiny. I think I could make an argument to oppose most things given a few minutes, coming up with a bona fide alternative may take some more work and lots of others. This is especially the case if proposing a solution means that you’re putting your head above the parapet. We fought against this and stood firm but they didn’t listen to us is easier to explain internally than we proposed this, they misunderstood and took it in a crazy direction. If only we’d stood firm it may have never gone anywhere.

      4. & 2.) Much of what the EU does is technical and thus many of the folk here have science backgrounds (whereas I dropped science they got Phds in it). Often they’re fact based folks who don’t want to say anything until it’s been proven beyond doubt. This may be exacerbated by lawyers or indeed by the fear of getting criticized by opponents for having a position that is based on an evolving understanding and thus evolves. Oh and don’t underestimate approval processes in many organisations. This makes getting in early and also being able to move in one’s thinking during a dialogue quite hard.

      Hope this helps your understanding. Apologies for not covering every point.

      Goodnight.

      James

      Reply

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A blog on politics, policy, public affairs and communications in Brussels and the European Union. The blog is written by the team at Fleishman-Hillard in Brussels. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect those of the company or its clients. You will find the contact details of our team at www.fleishman-hillard.eu

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