The CEO’s guide to public affairs

Public affairs is not just about politics or Parliament.  It should be seen as an integral part of decision-making in all organisations. But the challenge is to ensure that CEOs recognise this value and we all have a role to play in that. Fully understood, public affairs offers organisations a range of tangible benefits from helping to identify potential market opportunities, through to reducing the risk inherent in all organisations, and onto the development and protection of reputations (personal and organisational).

Too often, however, CEOs are unable to see beyond what is said in the media and the potential chance of a dinner with relevant political audiences.But such failings are not always the fault of CEOs, the industry too needs to recognise that more needs to be done to educate internal audiences.

So how can we ensure that CEOs see the real value in public affairs?

What CEOs need to do:

  1. Give the public affairs programme some of their time – this could be for meetings, agreeing the strategy or approving responses.  If the teams have to spend time arranging and rearranging meetings, it means that they will be unable to focus on the real needs of the organisation.  Such CEO behaviour also risks upsetting politicians and this could have implications.
  2. Leave space for public affairs to contribute to strategy development – this will allow the team to input into workstreams and policies rather than just being allowed to deal with political audiences.
  3. Ensure that the reporting lines allow for input – too few organisations have anyone with a communications background on the board, let alone anyone from public affairs.  If the advice is always filtered before it reaches a board level position then it risks not even reaching the attention of the CEO.  Or if the advice is constantly filtered through a non-expert then that too may result in missed opportunities to respond to issues which could affect an organisations operations and activities.
  4. Recognise that public affairs is more than just politics –  do not pigeon-hole it or see it as an inferior discipline to other aspects of communications, especially the media.
What the public affairs team need to do:
  1. Play to the targets of the organisation and demonstrate how public affairs can help deliver, or maybe even, improve on them – in other words, play the game that the organisation wants to play rather than going off on your own tangent.  The more a CEO can see team players actively contributing to the aims of the organisation, the more likely they are to listen.
  2. Get the delivery mechanisms right – get the information to the right people, at the right time and in the right way.  This may seem obvious but often requires a knowledge of the working practices of those in senior management positions and this is not always obvious.  Just as a public affairs team would try to get to know a political target then they should get to know their internal audiences as well.
  3. Do not be afraid to grab some attention with new ideas that can push an organisation forward – that could be a digital outlet, thought leadership or simply identifying a potential area of first mover advantage to grab governmental attention.
  4. Ask questions – do not worry about holding back and maybe even offer the occasional challenge to those in management positions.
  5. Go back to basics – and use case studies to show how your advice could work, complete with some practical examples, but how it has worked as well.  Many senior executives get nervous about stepping away from the known – help provide them with some confidence.  There is always a need for CEOs and board members to have training to prepare them for a variety of political interactions as well.  It can take some confidence to suggest but is rarely the wrong thing to do.
CEOs, Board members and public affairs teams and advisers all have a role to play.  It can be easy to blame those higher up in an organisation for not valuing our work or input but sometimes you have to make them listen.Good public affairs is a joint effort.

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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.

  1. An interesting aspiration for how CEOs should view public affairs but perhaps more emphasis needed on how the public affairs professional needs to and can earn the respect and trust of CEOs and senior management to take public affairs seriously. All too often its may take a public affairs-related crisis to awaken recognition of the value of a public affairs scanning and monitoring of the socio-political environment

  2. Good article, Mr. Thomson, congratulations.

    You have successfully addressed the need for CEOs to have a better understanding of Public Affairs (PA) and how the PA team can play its role.

    It would be interesting to find out how many CEOs and PA teams have utilised PA successfully to build and manage their companies’ reputation. Would you know? Please share.

    Thanks for your contribution. -Aisha

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