10 commandments of the PRACTICE of public affairs

In public affairs, subject matter tends to be so complex that we spend most of our time making sense of information and its implications. 

Understandably perhaps, but it does mean we spend less time thinking about the actual practice of public affairs itself. 

At Rud Pedersen, where I work, we clearly know that deep knowledge of sectors, issues, stakeholders, and the political process are paramount. But in parallel, we’d like everyone here to think consistently about the principles and best practices of public affairs, in order to deploy that knowledge most effectively. 

To that end, we have drafted 10 basic commandments to consider when conducting EU public affairs, which lay out some of those principles and best practices. Many are pretty simple and probably applicable to other professional services, but they do help to set a baseline.

1. Thou must not neglect any of the 4 Ps

We must always ask ourselves the following, and ensure we apply a suitable balance of the 4Ps depending on the challenge at hand. The 4Ps are reflected throughout the other commandments.

  • People: Who are the people involved? What motivates them? How do they relate to each other?
  • Policy: What are the relevant public policies? What is the debate? How are they likely to evolve?
  • Politics: What are the motivations of the different groups? What do they want to achieve? How can we help them?
  • Process: What happens next and when? Where are the opportunities for engaging? Which moments will be deciding?

NB: we believe Barry Lynam came up with 4 Ps of public affairs. Thanks Barry.

2. Thou must always be able to make a clear business case

In corporate PA, we must be able to articulate the business benefit that we can bring. A business case usually involves one of two things: 

  1. Risk mitigation e.g. defending a product, commercial freedom, licence to operate. 
  2. Opportunity creation e.g. creating competitive advantage, access to markets, funding. 

3. Thou must not mix up objectives, strategy and tactics

These form the core of a public affairs plan, but are often mixed up.

  • An objective is a specific, intended outcome that is measurable and time-specific. It indicates a change like “increase support for position X among priority audience Y by 100% within six months.” 
  • A strategy is a specific, limiting choice as to how we will meet that objective, say “differentiate organisation based on market power in an important constituency” or “leverage groups x, y and z.” 
  • A tactic is a specific action to support a strategy e.g. meet a decision-maker, publish a report, host an event. 

4. Thou must be channel agnostic

The most effective channel will depend on issue salience, timing, the activities of other stakeholders, and scores of other factors. But we are channel agnostic: we will never inherently favour one over another. A stakeholder meeting isn’t inherently better than a social media plan.

5. Thou must understand what influences decision-makers

Drivers of influence depend on many factors, like party or personal predilections. But there tend to be five overarching triggers of influence, although which of these is most relevant depends on the issue at hand: 

  1. Quality of technical input that can help legislators in their work. 
  2. Being perceived to provide credible solutions to pressing challenges.
  3. Proof of economic or societal impact.
  4. A high-quality coalition or network with well-regarded actors fighting the same battle.  
  5. Proof of popular support amongst important constituencies (wide or narrow).

6. Thou must appreciate that Brussels has become more political 

Brussels deals with more files of public interest, we have more pressure groups, a more engaged citizenry, a Commission that seeks democratic legitimacy, and a more powerful Parliament. More than ever, public affairs plans should reflect a demonstrable public interest angle.

7. Thou must understand how personal values affect opinion 

All people (including policy-makers, for they are human too) have personal values that dictate choices. We must understand these and reflect them in our narrative: is the person we are speaking to left-leaning, moderate, or conservative? Messages must, where feasible, reflect the values of those you are targeting as well as your own position and behaviour. A fine balancing act.

8. Thou must try to get in early 

Early detection and activity is far more desirable than getting involved late, as it enhances the likelihood that one may shape a policy, rather than just optimise it at a point where it is developed and public. Do not just look at what’s on the agenda this year and next but think about what might happen 5-10 years from now.

9. Thou must understand how we measure public affairs

It is often difficult to measure success in public affairs as it is usually long-term in nature, involves multiple actors, and activities are not transactional and therefore inherently harder to measure (how does one evaluate a meeting?) But it is measurable, and we should do our darnedest to assess our work.

10. Thou must mix up large-scale and day-to-day activities

Key to success is usually to mix up appropriate larger scale, ambitious showpiece activities (Strasbourg fly-in, key thought leadership report, major event, launch of initiative) and day to day drumbeat activity (intel analysis, stakeholder engagement, material production, media and social media relations) if and when relevant. Clearly, the balance will depend on the challenge at hand.

Wonder what others think?


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