A new tone for new times?

Different messages and sensitivity are the keys to influencing policy-makers in the slump

Bank bailouts, nationalisations, wildcat strikes, recession and cash for amendments – at a time of exceptional economic and political turbulence, is it time for a different approach to public affairs?
With the UK in the deepest recession since the early 1980s and the financial markets in unprecedented turmoil, 2009 will be a hugely challenging year for all sectors of the economy.

Politics is every bit as volatile as economics. The UK is at a political turning point, with an election in prospect that could be the closest since those of 1992 or 1974. The European Union will have a new parliament in June and a new commission in November. And one or two changes have taken place in the US too.

In times like these, some things have to be done differently.  As a business, it is no good any more to rely on your size and financial strength to guarantee that policy-makers will take you seriously. Not when the likes of Lehman, Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch, Citigroup, Bank of America, AIG, RBS, HBOS and the giants of the US auto industry have either been bailed out by governments or rescued by others.

You also have to get the tone of your broader communications right for your public affairs to be effective. The most extreme example of getting this wrong was the CEOs of the big three car makers in the US flying to Washington in their private jets to plead for a bailout. They were sent packing by Congress and ret­urned driving  hybrid cars. The  message must be right for troubled times.

People have suggested that corporate social responsibility (CSR) will wither in the recession. They’re badly wrong. CSR budgets will come under pressure as will all expenditure but, now more than ever, when companies and financial institutions are being blamed for the current crisis, sound businesses need to remind government and the public that they are a force for good.

Corporate responsibility will be crucial in a number of other ways, and without it, companies will not be taken seriously by policy-makers. When customers are struggling to pay their bills and their mortgages, sensitivity about arrears and about packages for vulnerable groups are particularly important. Similarly, a company that is environmentally responsible will cut its energy bills and create new business opportunities through green products and services. And if your corporate commitment to the environment is junked at the first sign of a downturn, no-one will believe your commitments in the future.

The recession means that government and opposition are particularly attuned to the needs of business and employers to survive and avoid unnecessary job losses.

With the political position in flux, engaging effectively with the opposition as well as the Government has never been more crucial. Labour will res­pond to every major Tory (and to a lesser extent, Lib Dem) initiative. They will reject and attack them, or – and this is inc­reasingly likely – they will steal them and claim them as their own. Persuading the opposition may lead to your ideas becoming government policy more quickly than solely trying to persuade the Government.

So, are exceptional measures and a new approach to public affairs required? Yes and no. A new tone, new messages and sensitivity are required. But the principles of effective public affairs still apply: building your credibility; building coalitions; campaigning imaginatively both offline and online; developing strong evidence supported by independent third parties; stressing the broader public benefit; being sensitive to the context and agenda of government; and, now more than ever, conducting your public affairs ethically and responsibly.

Views in brief
Name one little-known MP who you believe will become influential. Why?
Two prospective parliamentary candidates in safe seats. Chuka Umunna in Streatham for Labour and Shaun Bailey in Hammersmith for the Tories. Chuka is articulate and well-liked. Shaun is close to Cameron and good on social policy.

Your yacht is moored off Corfu but Mandelson, Osborne, Rothschild and Deripaska aren’t available. Who is on your fantasy guest list?
Barack Obama, Ken Clarke, Vladimir Putin, FT columnists Lucy Kellaway and Martin Wolf, financier George Soros, Time columnist Joe Klein, Nicolas Sarkozy and, of course, Keira Knightley.

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