Public affairs faces a changing world

Public affairs is always evolving. As this transformation accelerates around the world, it's important to reflect upon the major trends affecting our profession.

Public affairs is always evolving. As this transformation accelerates around the world, it's important to reflect upon the major trends affecting our profession.

First, public expectations for companies are greatly increasing. Not only do people want companies to be socially responsible, they expect them to provide social services and advocate for social causes. They even expect companies to use their political power to support causes they may or may not embrace. And they surely expect companies to be responsive and transparent.

For public affairs pros, this means success is a moving target. Just because you've pleased one stakeholder group doesn't mean that another won't cause problems. Just because you create an ally in one legislative battle does not mean you'll be able to keep that ally the next time battle lines are drawn. And these stakeholders need to be addressed on a global basis...or, as I say, "glocal" basis, country by country.

Second, this new environment has placed a premium on effective relationship-building. Companies that create rapport and find common ground with disparate groups will be the most successful in navigating the treacherous waters of public opinion and building a strong reputation. The public affairs pro needs to provide the bully pulpit within the company to make this a reality, then lead the effort.

Being an upstanding corporate citizen doesn't mean the public will always give you its support during tough times. Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is an important aspect of having a strong reputation, but it's not the only component. In today's world, the best companies have integrated CSR into their business. Still, this is not a guarantee of success.

Third, the internet enables people to create political movements overnight. It gives them an avenue to vent about unfair employers and dirty politicians. It is an electronic chain letter for those who've had bad experiences with companies.

What this means is that companies must not only be quick to respond, but must also be active online. In the internet age, it's not always clear whom your opponents are or when you need to take them seriously. What is clear is that companies have ceded ground to detractors, yet have not learned which strategies to employ or how to play offense.

Finally, we must take an integrated approach to public affairs management. The political and communications problems most organizations face are rarely limited to one jurisdiction. Local issues become state issues. State issues become national issues. Increasingly, national issues are becoming global challenges.

When they become global challenges, all bets are off. That's because we no longer have the home-field advantage. Many US companies have tried to go global and have been hurt not only by political differences and complexities, but also by growing anti-Americanism abroad.

While there is growing interest among companies in coordinating all their external relation- ships, especially their communications and government relations programs, many still don't do it effectively. Either there are management obstacles, or perhaps they haven't learned enough how much other departments can help them achieve their goals.

During the next year, in my role as Public Affairs Council chairman, I hope we can increase the opportunities to help drive integration and advance the significance of a more integrated approach, embracing the coordination - if not integration - of all public affairs tasks. This includes not only government relations and PR, but also CSR, corporate philanthropy, and IR.

Let's face it: If you don't have a consistent message and an integrated strategy, you're not ready to take on the challenges of the next decade.

These challenging times provide unprecedented opportunities for public affairs pros to have a key seat at the corporate table. It is our professional skills which best address the challenges our organizations face - challenges of public expectations, stakeholder engagement, the internet age, and integrated solutions.

Taking the Council to the next level will also be a focus of mine. Through strategies such as roundtables, audio conferences, research and publications, I want to ensure we provide members with resources to better do their jobs. Only by continuously increasing our skills and sharing our expertise will we successfully meet the challenges ahead.

Margery Kraus is chairman of the Public Affairs Council and president and CEO of APCO Worldwide.

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