Increasing efforts to regulate combined with an emerging trend for brands to stand for something purposeful may herald a new era for the public affairs function, writes Will Gilroy.
“Marketing used to see us as the internal police force. Now they know our message is more relevant.” So a public affairs professional from a major food sector multi-national told me recently.
For a long time, public and external affairs, and to some extent scientific and regulatory folk, have felt isolated in companies, kept distant from core business decision-making.
The job of the former was often woolly and ill-defined with soft KPIs; something along the lines of helping organisations understand and engage effectively with the external environment and community in which they operate.
In practice, this means mixing with a wide variety of stakeholders, including trade bodies, NGOs and regulators to tell your company story and, critically, fire-fight regulatory proposals likely to impact a company’s profit, such as tax proposals or marketing restrictions.
By contrast, the role of corporate communications has always felt more valued; they tend to have the ear of a CEO or General Manager, they are a more vocal spokesperson inside and outside of the organisation and, as such, are perceived to have a greater tangible impact on a company’s reputation particularly in times of crisis management.
I firmly believe smart companies will start to see the role of external relations and public affairs as equally important in the future for three important reasons.
Firstly we are witnessing increasing efforts to regulate a variety of sectors, whether it be food and non-alcoholic beverages for their perceived role in childhood overweight and obesity, alcohol manufacturers in light of under-age drinking and alcohol-related harm, financial services for getting people into debt, greenwashing, the commercialisation of childhood and so on. The list goes on. Every sector has something to worry about as societal sensitivities shift and change.
No one is better placed in a company to understand these emerging challenges than public affairs professionals; they are closest to NGOs and regulators who will drive these debates and the trade bodies who should be identifying emerging trends.
The second reason is that while no one understands their consumer like marketers, today’s ultra-connected consumer demands more. Brands need to understand the consumer in society and this is an important nuance. A consumer has a relationship with the products and goods that you provide but also an increasingly strong notion of how your company operates, how it treats its employees, how ethical its business practices are and what the company stands for.
Many companies have taken the decision to have public affairs report directly into marketing so that these broader issues are integrated into a company’s marketing strategy and execution. Unilever took this decision a decade ago. WFA’s President, David Wheldon, Chief Marketing Officer of the Royal Bank of Scotland oversees public affairs. His experience at Barclays as Head of Brand, Reputation and Citizenship during the Libor scandal taught him how essential this is.
Harvard Business Review calls this “internalising externalities.” Edelman’s David Brain explains in more detail: “companies need to speak and listen to a different and often wider range of stakeholders than in the past, and if necessary, be ready to change course based on what they hear. More than ever, engagement needs to be tied to action and not just set to broadcast. This means cultivating a wide circle of spokespeople with substantial expertise, participating in conversation in real time, and being open to partner with NGOs for the common good.” If engagement is truly to be tied to action, then the public affairs function needs a direct line into the business.
This direct report into a CMO or the board is critical for a third reason. In a WFA survey conducted in 2014 involving more than 800 senior marketers, 88% agreed that brand purpose will be increasingly important to building brands. Critically, 89% agreed that purpose needs to pervade the entire organisation and have buy-in from all business functions.
In today’s digital environment where consumers are more demanding and aspirational than previous generations, companies and brands need to stand for something more than the functional delivery of a product or service.
Accordingly, public affairs executives will be required to go beyond the discourse of how many people their company employs, factories they own and taxes they pay. They will need to be equipped with a more compelling narrative; what does your company stand for, what legitimises your longer-term ability to do business and how are you going about making a difference?
According to Havas Meaningful Brands, most people wouldn’t care if 74% of brands were to disappear tomorrow. This means your message needs to stand out from the crowd: what gives your company and its brand portfolio the legitimacy to operate?
At Unilever in Singapore where a number of their global brands are headquartered, their public affairs teams work with senior management and marketing to infuse their brands with purpose. They are invited to take part ownership of the brand story.
As companies start to understand the need to be better and quicker at internalising societal and regulatory concerns, their value to the company will grow immeasurably.
Those that succeed in growing their role will go beyond building strong, long-term relationships with key influencers and maintaining an acute and sophisticated understanding of policy dynamics. They will also become effective brand ambassadors for the companies they represent.
This effectiveness will come from developing a compelling narrative to explain what your company stands for, what meaning and purpose you bring to people’s lives and how you go about trying to do that.
The phrase on the tip of every marketer’s tongue at the moment is “digital transformation”, referring to the process whereby companies must re-engineer and re-shape their company to properly reflect today’s digital reality. Public affairs professionals will necessarily need to skill up in this area. For a large part of their ability to communicate that narrative will also depend on their ability to engage a broader stakeholder audience online.
Such proactive, digital-savvy communicators will go a long way to shedding the image of the fusty suit who spends time lobbying regulators, a stereotype that will become as antiquated as it will be an unfair reflection of the vital role public affairs will increasingly need to play.
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