Gilroy: A new dawn for public affairs

Increasing efforts to regulate combined with an emerging trend for brands to stand for something purposeful heralds a new era for public affairs, argues Will Gilroy, communications director at the World Federation of Advertisers.

"Marketing used to see us as the internal police force. Now they know our message is more relevant." So a public affairs professional from a major food-sector multinational told me recently.

For a long time, public and external affairs have felt isolated in companies, kept distant from core business decision-making.

The job of the former was often woolly and ill-defined; something along the lines of "helping organizations understand and engage effectively with the external environment and community in which they operate."

In practice, this means mixing with a wide variety of stakeholders, including trade bodies, NGOs, and regulators to tell your company story and, critically, fire fight regulatory proposals likely to affect a company’s profit, such as tax proposals or marketing restrictions.

By contrast, the role of corporate communications has always felt more valued; they tend to have the ear of a CEO or general manager, they are a more vocal spokesperson inside and outside of the organisation, and, as such, are perceived to have a greater tangible impact on a company’s reputation.

I firmly believe smart companies will start to see the role of external relations and public affairs as equally important in the future for three important reasons.

First, we are witnessing increasing efforts to regulate a variety of sectors, whether it be food and non-alcoholic beverages for their perceived role in childhood obesity, alcohol manufacturers in light of underage drinking and alcohol-related harm, financial services for getting people into debt, greenwashing, and so on. Every sector has something to worry about as societal sensitivities shift and change.

No one is better placed in a company to understand these emerging challenges than public affairs professionals: they are closest to NGOs and regulators who drive these debates and the trade bodies that should be picking up these emerging trends.

The second reason is that while no one understands their consumer like marketers, today’s ultra-connected consumer demands more. Brands need to understand the consumer in society, and this is an important nuance. A consumer has a relationship with the products and goods that you provide but also an increasingly strong notion of how your company operates, how it treats its employees, how ethical its business practices are, and what the company stands for.

Many companies have made the decision to have public affairs report directly to marketing so these broader issues are integrated into marketing strategy and execution. Unilever made this decision a decade ago. WFA’s president, David Wheldon, CMO of the Royal Bank of Scotland, oversees public affairs. His experience at Barclays as head of brand, reputation, and citizenship during the Libor scandal taught him how essential this is.

This direct report into a CMO or the board is critical for a third reason. In a WFA survey conducted in 2014 involving more than 800 senior marketers at major multinational companies, 88% agreed that brand purpose will be increasingly important to building brands. Critically, 89% agreed that purpose needs to pervade the entire organization and have buy-in from all business functions.

In today’s digital environment where consumers are more demanding and aspirational than previous generations, companies and brands need to stand for something more than the functional delivery of a product or service.

Public affairs executives will need to be equipped with a compelling narrative; what does your company stand for, what legitimizes your longer-term ability to do business, and how are you going to make a difference?

At Unilever in Singapore, where a number of the company’s global brands are headquartered, their public affairs teams work with senior management and marketing to infuse their brands with purpose. They are invited to take part ownership of the brand story.

As companies start to understand the need to be better and quicker at internalizing societal and regulatory concerns, their value will grow immeasurably.

Those that succeed in growing their role will go beyond building strong, long-term relationships with key influencers and maintaining an acute and sophisticated understanding of policy dynamics. They will also become effective brand ambassadors for the companies they represent.

This effectiveness will come from developing a compelling narrative to explain what the company stands for, what meaning and purpose it brings to people’s lives, and how it does that.

The phrase on the tip of every marketer’s tongue at the moment is "digital transformation," the process whereby companies must re-engineer and re-shape their company to properly reflect today’s digital reality. Public affairs professionals will need to improve their skills in this area. Their ability to communicate a new narrative will also depend on an ability to engage a broader stakeholder audience online.

Such proactive, digital-savvy communicators will go a long way to shedding the image of the suit who spends time lobbying regulators, an increasingly antiquated image of the vital role public affairs will need to play.

Will Gilroy is a public policy and communications expert working for the World Federation of Advertisers out of Singapore.

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