Changing challenges for public affairs

This is an article by Peter Wynne Davies.
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Peter Wynne Davies

As a large industry in the UK public affairs has had a fairly short history.

Given that the work of practitioners mirrors that of the political classes and society at large, it is inevitable that gradual evolution is fractured from time to time by ‘tipping points’ that alter both the industry and add to the challenges.

Within the UK, some voters have doubted the value of belonging to the EU. Elsewhere in Europe, European institutions have a varied and much more beneficial image amongst the electorate.

Upwards and downwards

We in Britain fail to understand how much legislation and regulation now emanates from the EU, rather from traditional sources such as Westminster. The global economic situation has seen the appointment of a technocratic government in Italy, led by a former EU figure Mario Monti.

The Greek government now finds its economic plans effectively led by the European Central Bank and by Chancellor Merkel.  The traditional road map detailing the direction in which lobbyists need to address their approaches changes continually and dramatically.

Devolution in the Celtic areas of the UK, introduced by Tony Blair in 1999, has created a moving dynamic of change. With a future referendum on independence in Scotland and increased powers in Wales, public affairs consultants are now faced with a complex and asymmetric pattern of decision-making.

On some subjects, Westminster still holds sway but on an increasing number of issues, lobbyists are faced with an upward drift of legal reservation to the EU and a downward delegation to devolved governments.

Understanding this tapestry is key to effective public affairs and is much more complex than most assume.

An independent Scotland – or even one with devolution-max powers – will create impetus for more devolution elsewhere.  We may find a parliament that devotes part of its time to English-only matters.  This may create a class of lobbyists who operate solely within one legislature – or a multi-skilled group capable of working with politicians and institutions across the EU.

Register of lobbyists

Calls for a register of lobbyists in the UK are not new.

The EU has grappled with this concern for many years as it recognises how the media, NGOs and civic society influence the government agendas.  Behind the current debates is a more important issue. The reputation of the PR and public affairs industry amongst the general public has long been a concern for those employed in this work and those who describe themselves as lobbyists will know well the public perception that their role is either unhelpful or worse.

Add that to a March 2012 You Gov poll that suggested that 62% of voters say ‘politicians lie all the time and you cannot believe a word they say’ and you will find lobbying and politics often perceived as one bunch of liars working with another.

Social media and NGOs

This negative societal perception of the political process has engendered another challenge for the public affairs world with the burgeoning development of social media.

Many NGOs and single issue groups have found the web a useful and cheap channel for the creation of public debate and negative public impressions across a whole range of issues.

Opposition to public affairs operators’ messages on concerns is now much more likely to be found outside a Parliament than within. Maintaining a public affairs debate solely within a legislative setting is now a thing of the past.

The monitoring and response to some NGOs and other groups can be a major task for the public affairs community and these voluntary groups will be much more believable than official pronouncements from politicians.

Of course, social media can also be used by businesses and their consultants to get their messages across, but there are still far more case studies showing how businesses get their communications wrong than those finding criticism of an NGO for making far-fetched claims.

If NGOs were influential in the past, their ability to gather together thousands of supporters through social media campaigns is a phenomenon that influences politicians in their approach to controversial legislative ideas.  Any public affairs consultant who has worked across economic areas such as the EU will understand the potential for NGOs to punch above their weight.

Politicians are susceptible to the desire to be seen on the ‘right side of an argument’ and the burgeoning array of social media channels has already been a powerful influence on them and the media. How Barack Obama operates is a prime example.  Traditional public affairs messages can be drowned in a cacophony from those who oppose potential ventures or new laws.  Social media use is described as playing a major role in the overthrow of the Libyan regime in the ‘Arab spring’, so its power is now without doubt.

Coalition politics

With a coalition government at Westminster, there are additional and complex challenges in establishing a legislative programme. The problems associated with the Health and Social Care Bill are the subject of daily media attention. The media and the commentariat continue to seem unable to cope with the idea of two parties being in power, although few have bothered to look at the governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland where coalitions have played major roles in their short histories. This new shape of Westminster government has created a new challenge for the public affairs community.

So, the work of lobbyists and the public affairs community continues to become more complex. With attacks on the conduct of politicians by the media, and close scrutiny of the media itself by the Leveson enquiry, issues such as a lobbying register might seem unimportant.

However, the operating environment for public affairs people is now more multi-faceted and fast changing than at any time in its history. The list of essential requirements for anyone new to the industry gets longer, daily.

The advent of formal training is therefore to be welcomed as is the willingness of those in the industry to participate. The challenges become wider and the only certainty is the continuing change that will affect the public affairs industry.


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