Communications for public affairs: thinking big

While this is not a post about COVID-19 per se, it is in part inspired by the manner in which public affairs professionals have responded to it. We have been quick to adapt, with most of us generally comfortable conducting our work and exchanges in a more public (albeit virtual) realm.

In a seminal article published back in 2002, ‘How political and social change will transform the EU public affairs industry’, Simon Titley wrote that ‘to survive and prosper, public affairs practitioners need to adopt a holistic view of politics and recognition that winning public trust, acceptance and support is the prerequisite of successful lobbying.’

Nearly 20 years on, Brussels is more political than ever. Political capital and alignment with popular sentiment are key to success in public affairs. Organisations need to be seen to have big solutions to big issues. They need to show genuine purpose and their private interests need to align with public interest.

To be fair, organisations do tend to behave better. And they do on average invest more in efforts to build political capital and public trust. If not in Brussels, at least in key member states where actual ‘publics’ are based.

But investing a tad more will usually not help organisations truly win public trust, acceptance and support. To build political capital in a crowded space, organisations need to ‘think bigger’ in terms of how they communicate.

What might thinking bigger look like in communications for public affairs?

Rather than making folk aware that we exist, we seek to surprise and delight them so that they might actually think we’re unique, and change their views and behaviour accordingly.

Rather than push a bunch of messages repeatedly and hoping one sticks, we commit fully to the single storyline that truly allows us to stand out.

Rather than seeing communications as a means to push messages out across multiple channels, we run creative campaigns with a clear objective and scope that people are likely to remember.

Rather than telling people we are meeting expectations, we tell them how we are exceeding them. ‘We’re contributing to 2050!’ You should be but what ELSE are you doing?

Rather than viewing integration as a comms person sitting with a PA person once in a while, we understand how public affairs can be more impactful when it aligns with corporate strategy and brand.

Rather than assuming the same communications output works for everyone, we apply techniques that campaigners and marketers use every day to break down our audiences by needs and values.

Rather than thinking we do 3rd parties well if we have a couple of testimonials and a decent guest speaker at our event, we do advocacy at scale using data and digital and turn people into active advocates.

Rather than having copy written and edited by the one native speaker in our office, we hire moonlighting reporters, novelists or screen writers.

Once we get back to hosting live events, rather than one-off events featuring a guest with a couple of tried and tested speaking points, we host professionally installed and moderated extravaganzas and permanent exhibitions.

Rather than determining opinion through guess work, we use machine learning that can distill millions of viewpoints and provide us with a pinpoint analysis of public sentiment.

Rather than investing a couple hundred here and there in paid media to direct some online traffic, we professionalise media buying to increase our scale and scope to truly drive reach and influence.

Rather than thinking the peak of audiovisual is talking heads videos, we use AR and VR to give people experiences rather than plain old information.

The list goes on.

We don’t all need to think really big, right away. But if we don’t start thinking bigger, we may as well not communicate. There is too much competition for the spotlight, and attention spans are too short to let bad communications filter through.

The speed with which public affairs professionals have embraced heartfelt LinkedIn exchanges and virtual events over the past few weeks implies that we can adapt fast when pushed.

As more of us feel the need to think big in communications for public affairs, we’ll hopefully be just as versatile.

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