Why Your Organization Should Prioritize Public Affairs
Recently the news outlet, Axios, declared “CEOs are the 4th branch of government” due to the swift response by many companies to the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol. What’s more, around the same time the multiple outlets reported researching showing the business sector is now trusted more than government in 18 of the 27 countries surveyed and is the only institution to be considered both competent and ethical.
While these are positive signs for corporations, it cannot be ignored that four years ago cries of “Drain the Swamp” and more recent polling showed 75 percent of respondents want to “end the culture of corruption” in Washington. For companies that want to engage in policy, the messages are mixed: we’re trusted and should engage, but we’re part of a corrupt process.
How then can companies move forward? While it is entirely self-serving as a public affairs communicator to say, “prioritize public affairs”, here are some thoughts about why it is true and how to inoculate your organization against blowback while preparing a robust engagement strategy to achieve your policy goals.
Public affairs give the lobbyist and policymaker room to work: Those of us who are witness to the process know good lobbyists help educate elected officials, staff, and other policymakers. That said, no policymaker will ever say, “I took that action because a lobbyist asked me to.” Instead, we hear, “I heard from my constituents, I read the reports and I saw the news. That’s why I voted for/against something.” Public affairs give the policymaker room to act in a way that supports our clients’ objectives. Because we communicate in the open, through media and public platforms with informed policy messages, public affairs is less exposed and not seen as part of a larger problem.
Start early: Creating and conditioning an environment that compels a policymaker to become engaged can’t wait until the end of the policy process. Companies shouldn’t wait until the vote is scheduled or the Executive Order is signed, nor should they forget the “public” in public affairs. It takes time to educate audiences and create the “surround sound” that truly influences policymakers.
Know the influential stakeholders and engage them: Educating the public can seem like boiling the ocean. Using a process like JPA’s Gretel will deliver insights about your audience while identifying the stakeholders and influencers who speak to your audiences helping to amplify your messages. Targeting like this should be at the heart of every public affairs campaign.
Communicate truthfully, consistently, and often: What you communicate must be consistent with your organization’s reputation. Companies shouldn’t expect traction with media, policymakers, or other stakeholders if their brand and reputation belie their messages. Be consistent. Having one message for policymakers and one for media or the public will only hurt you when they collide. The same research showing business is more trusted than government also showed faith in media institutions slipped a very small amount last year, indicating why it is important to take advantage of all the platforms available to organizations. Owned, paid, and earned channels are critical to keeping up a constant stream of communications to your targeted audiences.
With a new administration, new Congress, an impeachment trial, and lingering resentment over January 6th, the policy environment will be unsettled for the next several months. In short, this is an optimal time to advance your public affairs efforts. If you want to learn more, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.