As we are more than 2/3 through this Public Affairs myth-busting blog experiment, I thought we would use this weeks blog to take a deep-dive on some of the trends observed in the answers from more than 36 Public Affairs (PA) professionals here on the blog.
More specifically: The importance of management buy-in, not only to isolated Public Affairs tactics (you will almost always get C-level interested in shaking hands with ministers), but also to the notion of Public Affairs as a strategic enabler of the corporate strategy.
As I wrote in my book, The Public Affairs Engine – a guide on how to build and fuel the Public Affairs Engine in your organization from 2020, a significant proportion of Public Affairs professionals in international companies mention that when Public Affairs doesn’t have a big commitment from the CEO, then the function risks becoming devalued and disconnected from important business issues. If this happens Public Affairs risks gradually losing its position, and this is a very dangerous situation to get into – also described by a participant in a survey from the book as a “spiral of death”. Commitment from management is defining for the Public Affairs function.
So a key questions here is of course: How do we get management onboard? Do we just form an internal committee and invite someone from management to the meeting and force them to get involved?
If you are having this problem, it’s probably already too late
21 out of 36 bloggers on this site mentioned explicitly commitment from management as a defining factor for Public Affairs succes. As I have mentioned many times this year e.g. on The Persuaders Podcast, internal legitimacy is just as important for Public Affairs professionals as external legitimacy, which I sense too many forget. Without internal legitimacy you will not get far. If there is no or declining support for Public Affairs internally, you will underperform over time and worst case the function will be cut.
But to answer the question in the title of this blog, we might want to start by asking why some leaders actually do chose to prioritize Public Affairs. For starters, let me make something very clear: Attention or priority from the C-level is not necessarily only a net positive for the Public Affairs function – as also some research in the field has shown. It depends on the internal structures and how the C-level choses to engage. E.g. I hear many stories about CEOs talking to politicians in private networks or events and forgetting to share crucial information with the Public Affairs team.
But back to the core question: Why do some C-level leaders get involved (and in the right way), while others do not? I see two obvious reasons.
First of all, the leaders who actually get involved see business value from Public Affairs (often due to a recent crisis). And if that is the case, and if they chose to involve themselves constructively in the Public Affairs structures or activities, then this can have a positive impact on e.g. issues management efforts – something supported by research from Public Affairs scholars like John Mahon, Daniel Greening, Barbara Gray etc. C-level leaders committed to dealing with social and political issues are more likely to develop internal structures to cope with issues = better early warning mechanisms = more time to act before competitors.
Secondly, it is important to recognize that prioritization of Public Affairs by C-level also is a major influence on the design of the Public Affairs function. So in other words, even though companies can be forced by outside factors to establish Public Affairs functions, most are formed or even created by the initiative of current management. So to put it bluntly: Many Public Affairs functions exist because of current management’s decisions and not for rational, historical reasons, structures or parts of the company vision. To put it even more bluntly: Many Public Affairs structures directly reflect a “fit” with the personality of the senior leadership e.g. if they are very open, extrovert, politically interested, this is also reflected in the attitude towards the Public Affairs function. This is not just me observing this when I talk to PA pros on a weekly basis, this is also supported by research.
The first reason mentioned above you can influence as a Public Affairs pro, the second is more difficult. So if we focus on the essence of reason #1: How do we get management to see business value from Public Affairs? By contributing to and aligning Public Affairs to the corporate strategy. And how do we do that then? We implement the right structures for Public Affairs in the organization. How can we do that? The typical consultant would answer “it depends on..”, but I will go one further and put forward a framework, I have implemented in / for several organisations:
In this model the Public Affairs function takes the role as the window to the outside world in a never-ending cogwheel which keeps process information in a circle. Thus, the function gathers information from the outside world, e.g. on the company or the issues of the company, and brings them into the organization, where this information is shared with the relevant internal stakeholders and “digested”. At the same time Public Affairs functions can gather information internally, which is then either used to adjust current activities (or maybe even the strategy) and then expelled back out into the world. So in essence, with this framework inspired by scholars Barron and Pareda, the aim is create alignment between the company’s performance and the external stakeholders expectations. And that is basically – in my view – what Public Affairs is about.
PS: One thing is to have the attention of the CEO / C-level right now. But is this a permanent state? No, and more Public Affairs professionals should be worried about this.
But more on that later this year in coming blogs.