Image courtesy of flickr user William Warby

How to identify and exploit public affairs opportunities

Any good public affairs campaign should change over time to make the most of political and policy opportunities. That makes public affairs only as good as the opportunities that can be identified and then exploited. Here are some tips. In the first place, you have to be armed with information. You may sometimes feel that there is too much information floating around but often the role of the public affairs team is to gather the information, distill it and then advise other parts of the business which opportunities should be pursued and which should be placed to one side. In other words, public affairs can be the gatekeeper of political and policy information to other parts of the business and for senior executives as well.This means being able to explain why you act on some information and not others. So always keep good records. Mistakes will be made from time to time but can only be avoided if an examination of the reasoning can take place. Gut instinct and a simple ‘no’ on an email won’t cut it.

The sheer quantity of information out there also means that some can be missed. But similarly, unless there is a good record of how you go about identifying information then lessons cannot be learned.

Some of the sources you need include:

  1. Information from government – press releases and other documents from departments; forward plans if you can get them etc.
  2. Information from Parliament – check the Weekly Business so you know what to expect; Select Committee inquiries; APPG meeting timetable etc.
  3. The power of networking – contacts may have information that you do not so a bigger and better connected network can lead to improved public affairs. That network might not just be yours. An initial lead could come from colleagues in other parts of the organisation as well but they need to know to ‘report’ it to you for potential actions.
  4. Social media – as government gets better at using social media, the level of information and interaction increases. Add to this the ability to gather information from external organisations and potentially about future events, news work-streams etc.
So you now have the information but it is then what you do about it which is where critical analysis and reasoning are required. This means that the information needs to considered both from an internal and external perspective.Think about this potential, fictional opportunity:
The new Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy announces a review into the industrial strategy covering your sector. There would doubtless be an immediate enthusiasm to get involved in its development and to get your ideas across to the Minister and the civil servants working on the plans. However, part of your analysis should be internal as well. That means asking questions such as ‘Did you get involved in the previous strategy?’, ‘Did you deliver on your end of the strategy?’ and ‘Were there failings by Government?’The responses from these questions need to be considered as part of your potential future engagement. For instance, if the previous strategy recommended enhanced transparency on taxation but your organisation failed to deliver that then you might choose to not respond this time or, at the very least, you need to be able to explain why you failed to deliver. Similarly, if your new response is likely to be a detailed critique of Government failures then consider how you express these and where a balance needs to be struck with new ideas.
This is really a call for an effective risk assessment strategy as part of your public affairs. Engagement for engagement’s sake is rarely effective. It also ignores the prioritisation that needs to take place as well. Organisations simply do not have the resources necessary to follow-up every potential opportunity. So the analysis also needs to take into account work load and the potential counter-productive dangers of simply bombarding departments, Ministers or advisers. You do have to give them some time and space.I am always happy to chat through approaches and challenges with people as well. Sometimes the best opportunities, or the identification of pitfalls, come about through discussion.Image courtesy of flickr user William Warby

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Stuart is a public affairs and communications specialist with BDB Pitmans advising clients on all elements of their public affairs strategies including political and corporate communications and reputation management. His work also includes consultation and planning communications and he has advised on a number of high profile media relations and crisis communications programmes. Stuart is an honorary research fellow at the University of Aberdeen and is the author of several books including ‘New Activism and the Corporate Response‘ (heralded as a book that “every aspiring business leader should read” by MIS Asia), ‘Public Affairs in Practice’ and ‘The Dictionary of Labour Quotations‘. His most recently published book, ‘Public Affairs: A Global Perspective’ has been called ‘an absolute treasure-trove’ and is a recommended read by the Government Communication Service (GCS). Stuart regularly writes and lectures on a range of business and political issues and as well as blogging for BDB Pitmans he contributes to the Huffington Post and has written for the CBI, (former) UKTI, Total Politics and LabourList. He is also an adviser to the Entrepreneurs Network (TEN) and a regular speaker and chair at conferences. He has appeared on Sky News, BBC 5 Live, BBC World, the Today programme and on Ukrainian TV and has been a judge for the Public Affairs News, PR Week, Public Affairs and the European Public Affairs awards. Stuart is a CIPR trainer leading the 'Practical Public Affairs' course.

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