Why PA struggles to adapt to digital: don’t blame it all on the old fogeys

I just re-read my last post and had a thought. Point two – in which I state that PA professionals increasingly need to think issues and reputation management rather than pure government relations, and hence should embrace the campaigner’s toolkit, including digital – sounds simple enough (the concept, but certainly not the execution.) However, although I imply that it’s because people aren’t moving with the times, I’m now thinking this – as easy as it is for young whippersnappers like me to blame old-school PA types for the fact that Brussels and other PA hubs are lagging, two other issues are no doubt key in determining why organisations aren’t more visionary in their PA approach:

  1. The nature of the game: short-term legislative priorities over long-term reputation. Countering Directive X is more pressing today, frankly. And as soon as Directive X is dealt with, along comes Directive Y to soak up all your time. With a PA team consisting of 5 people and 1 consultant on call whose hours are nearly all used up, it’s no surprise that organisations struggle to think long-term.
  2. It’s not you but your entire sector that needs rebranding. A lot of organisations struggle with long-term reputation because they operate within a tiny niche of a far bigger sector. They produce chemical X or energy resource Y or financial tool Z; but no one has ever heard of any of them. Yet they’re getting hammered because chemicals, energy and financial services at large have reputational issues. Why should they, representing 0.1% of a far bigger industry, be leading the charge? Quite.

Many would no doubt add another reason for PA’s struggles with digital: the fact that many issues are off the public radar and don’t need a campaign element given that “we know our entire target audience” or “our audiences don’t use the web.” Whatever. Sure, 90% of the issues I work on don’t require campaign elements suited to digital, like mobilisation and community building, but NO ONE can possibly think they are maximising their chances of success without backing up their offline narrative with a good online content strategy, supported by at least a search strategy to ensure maximum visibility amongst target audiences.


5 thoughts on “Why PA struggles to adapt to digital: don’t blame it all on the old fogeys”

  1. Steffen,

    Thanks for posting again on the same subject matter. You reminded me of your first post and my latent desire to respond to it in commentary.

    I agree with you that it’s not just a question of the old folks not getting it (digital). Your observation that the legislative churn is eye candy for the public affairs professional, distracting from the long term booty on offer, is spot on. The opportunity is to shape the policy environment long before any particular Directive has hit the Parliament. Instead of playing at the margins, you shape the framework of debate. Digital is a tool to help you do this, among others.

    However, I think you miss an important step in jumping straight from this analysis to a focus on corporate reputation. For me (as someone who professes to practice public affairs), corporate reputation is a foundation on which to build towards other goals – in the case of a public affairs professional shaping public policy – not an end in itself. Important to have it, more important to ask what it is for. Again for me, it’s about having the ability to build successful campaigns for something.

    The opportunity of the campaigning model of public affairs is that it is all about the long term. It is about taking one’s head out of the Directives and asking oneself how can I align my interests with those of the policymaker, and hopefully society as a whole, so we’re all better off in the long term? This is of course easier if your organization has a reputation for contributing, but an increase in reputation is also a byproduct of the approach. You’re trying to identify solutions, rather than reduce the adverse effects. As you focus on the interest alignment, you’ll find and need allies amongst other groups, including those you are seeking to move.

    The nature of the campaigning approach also means a change in emphasis in tactics. Government relations (i.e. meeting policymakers) will continue but is likely to be just one part of a whole host of other public affairs tactics better suited for putting stuff on the agenda (mobilization of third parties, media relations, online communications etc.) rather than taking it off.

    So for me at least, the way to convince public affairs folks who are wedded to the tactic of meeting people (GR) is not to talk about digital (or indeed corporate reputation) but to talk about how we’re going to make them more successful at doing what they are supposed to do: influencing policy. Why would you not want to walk into a policymaker’s office, be welcomed as a partner in finding solutions and with that policymaker asking you what they need to do to help you all get to that solution? Public affairs gets you that, government relations does not.

    (apologies at the length this was written on the metro home and it’s a long ride)

  2. Thanks for the comment. Yes I agree entirely. My post largely referred to PA as a defensive practice, even in the long-term, but absolutely – where we really want to get to is pro-active PA in which organisations of all sorts team up with policy-makers as partners in search for solutions aligned with everyone’s best interests. Long way off though..

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