I frequently speak to fellow Public Affairs professionals who tacitly agree that we’re all a little dull (not personally, but the PA function within our organisations). This is problematic because the evolving nature of the PA function demands that we become more interesting. Gone are they days when we speak to a miniscule audience of fellow experts. Increasingly, we need to be winning over hearts and minds that may not know that much about the subject matter, in a market where they are exposed to far more information than ever before. This in turn obliges us to be more thought-provoking, amusing and, god forbid, emotional.
No, PA is not too cerebral to be any of the above: enough of the endless data, position papers no one reads and press releases no paper picks up; instead, bring on smart summaries of issues, layman’s terms and information presented in forms other than small print.
Easier said than done though: how does the PA function, which traditionally has focussed on subject-matter expertise alone rather than how to communicate it effectively, suddenly become thought-provoking, amusing and emotional by embracing creative content production?
There’s no right or wrong answer, but here are a few thought starters.
How isolated is the PA function within the organisation in question? If it’s very isolated, it’s unlikely to have been in contact with more creative elements it could probably pick up a few tricks from (usually the ones involved more closely in targeting customers). And by the way, the old “we’re traditional, there’s no one creative in the whole company” claim doesn’t fly: creative doesn’t mean comic books and trapeze artists, it can just mean smart, strategic thinking done with a twist. Talk to the brand, marketing, corporate communications teams, even if they’re somewhere else, and even if you’re a bank or produce unpronounceable chemicals.
You can try to change things from within but the people onboard have “traditional” PA profiles? That’s fine, but next time you hire someone, maybe look beyond the person with a political science degree, experience in government or similar sectoral experience in a different setting. Hire someone who has a proven track record in communications outside a policy town. Clearly they should understand PA, but it shouldn’t be their bread and butter. This sort of profile will also usually be better at grasping PA within a business and reputation context, which is getting ever more essential as we veer towards a model where Public Affairs becomes less about government relations alone.
“Hire someone creative” may be a bit of a push, not least because the barriers to creativity often stem from internal hurdles placed by traditionalists within the PA function in an organisation. How can they be won over? Start with two simple things which we for some reason often overlook in Public Affairs although they are staples in other areas of communication: benchmarking and polling. Yes, benchmark other organisations, other industries, even other functions within your own organisation. I suspect many of them will have produced smart and effective material that isn’t in Times New Roman font size 8. By polling I don’t just mean professional polling (although clearly if you can, do so). Ever asked friendly members of your target audience (officials, assistants, press) what they really want from you? In many cases, it won’t be another position paper.
If you work with agencies, as yourself a couple of questions. First, is your agency the right one? You need policy expertise but you may also need really good communications nous. Does your agency provide both? If not, maybe look beyond it. Second, do you use an agency that is part of a larger network? If so, make sure your agency thinks of other parts of its network when servicing you. They may have a design magician in Paris and a former journalist come story-teller par excellence in Berlin who could be really useful to you, but neither is being called on because “they don’t do PA”.
Anything I’ve forgotten?