As we’re grappling with the economic and societal impact Covid-19 has had on us as human beings, on how we work, and on the economy at large, could public affairs be the force behind the return to normal?
While the pandemic has significantly impacted how we go about our day-to-day lives personally and professionally, with the exception of a few short weeks at the height of the crisis the work of government and the legislative community as a whole has continued uninterrupted. As public affairs professionals, our work is a deeply integrated part of this policy ecosystem: if it is still working, so are we, adapting and evolving in real-time to remain in step with new proposals and political agendas. In fact, in some cases we have seen policy files accelerate, not just at the EU level in Brussels, but across national capitals: the new EU Green Deal, AI & privacy concerns connected to tracking apps, and social policies stand out in particular, accompanied by new opportunities for increased policy coordination and harmonization, such as in a common EU health policy.
The silver lining of the increasing demands of public affairs at-a-distance is that this could be a meaningful opportunity for PA professionals within organizations of many kinds to reaffirm their purpose and added value, not just within the policymaking sphere, but on the ‘home front’. PA functions have traditionally suffered from a lack of visibility and understanding in many circles, due in large part to a less explicit link to the bottom line and a strategic ROI that often defies being quantified by standard metrics. As we navigate through Covid-19, however, these strong working relationships with legislators, policy makers and external stakeholders have proven critical not only to the PA work but whole industries. They offer expertise and established channels to pursue financial support for specific hard-hit industries, ensure targeted measures are discussed and negotiated, provide timely insights and share best practices, and to promote flexibility on regulations and standards by sharing information and perspectives from experts and impacted communities. At a time when uncertainty about the future and the shifting landscape has become more immediate for people across all functions and levels, it presents a great opportunity for public affairs – whose remit has always included exactly those questions – to develop closer and more direct relationships throughout their business and organizations on freshly unearthed common ground.
This opportunity is not exclusive to public affairs, however, and communications functions deserve to be key drivers as well, working closely with the rest of the organization to help chart the path forward to economic recovery and to engage with internal and external audiences to both illustrate and build support for a clear vision. If there is a risk, it is that some may look to cut or scale back these functions in an attempt to quickly reduce costs and focus on core operations, but this would ultimately be counterproductive. From our experience, reflecting both recent assignments and conversations with clients and contacts across multiple sectors, the most agile and responsive organizations have been quick to understand the importance of staying in close contact with legislators as the wheels of policy continue to turn, and many have seen greater synergy between communications and public affairs that has been encouraged by a broader focus on new tools and new channels for engagement.
At the same time, there is consensus that while the forced move to remote or digital work practices and infrastructure has been largely successful at ensuring continuity, remote engagement will only get you so far in so many capacities: when it comes to effective policy and regulatory engagement, success will continue to be underpinned by close relationships and established networks built over years of hands-on work and a strong presence on the ground where policy is actually debated and decided. In that regard, the future of public affairs will be a balancing act between the organizational and functional connections and understanding that can be built in the light of a new normal, and the close face-to-face work with political stakeholders and technical experts which serve as the traditional cornerstone for the role.
While the full impact of Covid-19 on the economy has yet to be determined, what we see in clearer detail are the long-term strategic objectives that organizations have set with a view to reinforcing their presence in Brussels and key EU capitals, and buttressed by new focuses on resilience and networks with deep, but flexible, roots. Some organizations have actually stepped up plans to expand PA teams, even establishing new EU affairs offices in the midst of the lockdown, while those who have put new recruitments on hold have highlighted physical impracticalities of travel or remote onboarding, not incompatible priorities, as the predominant concern.
These actions are signs of a broader move towards a new equilibrium and a more robust and integrated public affairs role across organizations. Despite the challenges which remain, it is promising that the adaptations spurred by Covid-19 will not be framed as “do or die”, but “do and thrive”, with changes to both the PA sphere and the broader environment which surrounds it synergizing to see a more harmonious relationship between political engagement and organizational success. In the words of Albert Einstein said, “in the midst of every crisis, lies great opportunity”, and the case of public affairs is a testament to the truth they contain. While there is still a way to go, what we have seen thus far indicated that this may be just such a catalyst for the public affairs functions across organizations, ultimately reinforcing their strategic place at the C-suite table and beyond.
Anna Koj is Deputy Director at Mavence, having joined in 2016 after a career in Public Affairs and NGO Management in the field of Human Rights. In addition to holding an MBA, Anna is a certified personality assessor and an ethical leadership trainer.