Bursting the Bubble

Why public affairs does not equal lobbying

27 January 2014 | by

According to Public Affairs Council President Doug Pinkham, “public affairs is the most important function that nobody understands”. It is certainly much easier to walk into a party and introduce yourself as a ‘lobbyist’ though even that term may be rather mysterious (and often negative) to most. It is worth considering therefore what these job descriptions cover, not least since this very blog is about ‘European Public Affairs’.

What is actually lobbying?

Lobbying is broadly understood as dealing with government relations, that is, the primary target of a lobbyist’s efforts is a public authority or a policy maker. Even this definition is subject to challenge, enough to look at a recent statement on the British Government’s website proudly mentioning their very own lobbying efforts on the EU’s public procurement rules. Confining lobbying as an activity conducted by private sector entities towards public bodies is therefore missing the point. The broad concept, according to the European Transparency Register, is that anyone aiming to influence policy is considered a lobbyist (though the register does not use this very term), hence this can and does include NGOs, religious entities, diplomats, local governments and academics alike. With the latter, however, the causality between the publication of a scientific study and its ultimate effect on lawmaking is often lacking, and so does the intention of the professor who may have triggered legal changes only as an ‘unintended consequence’. No wonder many academics doubt that they should sign up to the Transparency Register even when dealing with European policy matters.

The public affairs professional

Looking at the corporate environment, no staff member would call themselves ‘lobbyist’ on their business card and only a handful would do so even off the record. This is not out of political correctness or the perceived negative connotation that goes with the term but rather due to the fact that their job, in most cases, is far broader than ‘just’ lobbying.

Again, there is no clear definition of what ‘public affairs’ really means since it is often used as a synonym for ‘public diplomacy’ or a term to describe a governmental institution’s relations with citizens. In the corporate (and to some extent, NGO) world, the term also differs whether it is used in Europe, the US or other parts of the world. The American interpretation is usually the broadest, and I very much agree with this approach: public affairs includes the management of all areas and issues that can affect a company’s [external] business environment, except for the classic sales and marketing functions. Government affairs is certainly a crucial part of that, but a lot more is expected of public affairs professionals. Let’s take a look at a few areas that are just as important.

Regulatory compliance: this, quite obviously, is a vital  area for industries that are heavily regulated and whose products (or less commonly, services) need to meet a wealth of technical rules and standards. Think of the pharmaceutical industry (approval of new drugs, reporting on clinical trials etc.), the microelectronics or consumer appliances field (safety of electronics, standards etc.), chemicals (including paints, industrial use materials etc.), food and beverage industry (food additives, colorants, labeling etc.) or even the car industry (safety requirements, compatibility, emission levels etc.). This is often handled by the legal department, but the public affairs staff needs to be fully up to date as they will often be the ones speaking to the relevant officials in the European Commission or in the national ministries.

Corporate communication:  many companies like to place their public affairs teams as part of the corporate communication team. Why? Because reputation, especially in the eyes of key ‘stakeholders’, such as government authorities, journalists and bloggers, consumer groups and NGOs is a fundamental factor that can have a major impact on the business, regardless whether it is a B2B (business-to-business) or B2C (business-to-consumer) provider. The key difference, however, is while classic marketing and sales focus on selling the product or service, public affairs aims to create a better external environment where regulations, funding, public acceptance, general support, dialogue, cooperation and business partnerships are easier, due to a positive perception of the company, its brand or cause. To advance this, methods may include an introductory meeting between the CEO and various EU-level policy makers, or a conference where a flagship topic (‘diabetes’, ‘data privacy’, ‘credit card interchange fees’) is discussed, aiming at all stakeholders who can ‘influence’ the reputation.

Stakeholder management: you don’t need to work for an oil company to consider why the role of NGOs is vital in shaping (or stalling) your business, or to understand that working with key civil society organizations can yield positive results both for the business and the NGO as well. Classic lobbyists rarely engage in dialogue with non-governmental entities, but a good strategic thinker will understand that environmental, consumer protection, fair trade, ethical sourcing or anti-child labor organizations have valid messages to tell, and if properly fed into the corporate policy, can yield great results on both sides. Stakeholders are not limited to NGOs, however. Local communities, too, are often very vocal about a new plant that may be built in their area, and it’s not only hydraulic fracturing (or ‘fracking’) that mobilizes resistant locals but even a new distribution centre can trigger negative reactions. If these concerns and efforts are not properly addressed, they can easily make any business plan impossible to execute.

Corporate social responsibility: many companies keep a strong focus on their CSR activities, but these are often either outsourced to a specialized consultancy or spread across several departments. This is to say that it’s quite rare to find a ‘chief CSR officer’ as a role, which means that it is ultimately the public affairs professionals who will deploy initiatives at the local school, roll out a rigorous audit of the company’s raw material sourcing practices or discuss projects that help nurture future leaders in the countries where the company operates.

Trade associations: I have not yet met with any public affairs professional who works for a company and is not a member, on behalf of his or her employer, of at least a couple trade associations. Being represented in the innovative medicines, agrochemicals, renewable energy or industrial packaging sector’s trade association is vital for any organization to make its voice heard better when industry-wide issues surface. A single company cannot always be its own best advocate, whereas trade associations are representative bodies of their segment and often have long-standing links with specialized journalists, European officials and other stakeholders. It is therefore an important part of a public affairs professional’s job to leverage their company’s presence in their association and also to gather useful insights about the direction where policy-making is going.

Revenue generation: apart from the above platforms and issues, public affairs staff are increasingly expected to identify opportunities from European or local funding, or legislative changes that can open up business  (read: revenue) for the organization to leverage. For instance, if a new regulatory standard decreases the noise pollution level that a passenger vehicle will be allowed to emit, a hybrid or exceptionally silent car’s maker can easily comply with the new rules and therefore pitch its products earlier than its competitors. Spotting available EU funds for research and innovation for R&D driven companies is another area that is more and more expected from their public affairs office.

As described above, looking at the public affairs function merely as ‘lobbying’ is an oversimplification of the job description. I have met dozens of professionals who, though from the outside may be considered as lobbyists, spend less than 10% of their time meeting EU officials, while 90% of their working hours is committed to representing their issue in trade associations, looking after their latest CSR plans, attending issue-focused conferences, reporting on the latest legislative trends and making sure their efforts are properly communicated in-house to ensure their CEO understand the real value of public affairs.

6 Comments

  1. There is also confusion as to how public affairs and public relations fit together. This could also be because many end up doing both roles in their same job description. Having worked for a few UK and European trade associations during the past 20 years in the freight sector, it is surprising that even those organisations did not understand the differences. Indeed, some didn’t even know that their ‘policy’ managers and directors were actually public affairs and public relations specialists, and never gave any formal training in PA: you just learn as you go.

    I for one would have benefited over the years from what the PAC has to offer. The Public Affairs Council should look closely at trade associations for more members, as it appears from experience there is a rich seam, as yet still largely untapped..

    • abaneth

      Many thanks, Andrew for your comments – and also for the suggestion!

    • IMO that’s because for years business thought PA and PR were “soft skills” and therefore non-quatifyiable. A view that’s still held today by too many business, NGO’s and associations. The reality is with the explosion of availible data from multiple sources ( e.g. MEP voting rates, financials, Markets, Search, social media, news) more and more KPI’s/insights are/can be developed, which tend to show many previously unknown instances, themes and events influence multiple business processes. The result? Inherently it will be essential that more integration of formerly “siloed” functions, such as PA, PR, Comms and market access happen.

  2. Very sound article Andras. Lobbying registers don’t make the distinctions that you have highlighted. The problem with the current definition of anyone aiming to influence policy is considered a lobbyist is that it tries to be a catch-all for the sake of ‘good governance’. Unfortunately, it is full of holes in its definition, application and in practice. Time for a serious rethink!

  3. Hi Andras, good article and thanks for that. I guess that we all have realized how much confusion generates the term ‘Public Affairs’, and its distinction from Public Relations. You are now part of the Public Affairs Council (US based, right?), but I presume that you are European. If we take this into account, your seniority and knowledge of our sector in Europe gives you an excellent opportunity of comparing the sector of Public Affairs in the US and in Europe. What difference do you see in the exercise of lobbying (as one of the different PA services 😉 between the EU and the US?

    I take as well the definition of the TR that you use in your article: lobbyist as the person aiming at influencing policy. Basically, we represent the interests of those who have enough money to pay for our skills & expertise. Big corporations, or international associations. But what about our ethics as a European citizen? I see that the Public Affairs Council where you work now ‘provides training and advice on public affairs ethics’. And after few years of prof experience in the sector of EU affairs, even if I have never encountered any problem of ethics in my current company, I start wondering about our responsibility regarding the good performance of Real Democracy.

    A real Democracy (not the one that the North-Americans are experiencing in the US described by Lippmann as “progressive democracy”) should be a system whereby the citizens (all of them, not only the people with REAL power, but the “bewildered herd” as well) have the chance and the means to participate in the management of their own affairs, deciding themselves (ourselves) the kind of society we want to live in. When we represent the interest of our client, I think that the ethics of a Public Affairs professional should invite him/her to wonder: how am I contributing as a citizen with my job of PA professional to the good performance of the REAL Democracy?

  4. Hi Omar,

    Thanks for your comment!

    Indeed the Public Affairs Council is Washington DC based, and I am running the recently opened European office.

    As you are certainly aware, NGOs are extremely powerful in the EU scene (even if they themselves don’t perceive it that way), so the dynamics of access to policy makers and the concept of ‘real democracy’ is much less of an issue here. Also, trade associations are an important part of the equation, so I don’t think that single companies would have privileged influence over what policy comes out from the institutions, especially if we consider the lack of concentrated powers for most policy areas (on the other hand, where EU institutions have regulatory powers, such as competition or implementing measures, this may be different).

    Kind regards,

    Andras

What do you think?