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Public Affairs Insights from the Centre

19 Jan 2016

The Centre’s Top Five Public Affairs Predictions for 2016

Wayne Burns

The start of a New Year turns many a businessperson’s mind to their career and business trajectory for the next 12 months.

As we have done in past, the Centre has collated what it predicts will be some of the likely big developments in corporate public affairs 2016 (a summary of our 2015 Top Predictions is listed at the end of this note).

It has been said that those who live by the crystal ball are those who eat shattered glass. Our predictions are based on what we have observed working with best practice corporate public affairs teams and practitioners globally, liaising with our affiliated organisations (including the US Public Affairs Council), and informed by our own research and analysis.

We present our top five predictions in no particular order.

1. Stakeholders at the heart of corporate public affairs strategy
It was only a few years ago that a corporate reputation objective was at the centre of public affairs strategies for most companies, and part of broader corporate strategy.

Some leading corporations have been turning this on its head during the last few years. They have replaced a reputation objective with one that seeks robust and meaningful relationships with stakeholders as the primary focus of public affairs strategy.

Is this just semantics? Or nuance?

Not exactly.

Placing well-planned and effective stakeholder engagement at the heart of strategy changes how resources are allocated and how decisions are made.

The practical implication of this change determines how issues are managed, how tactics are developed and executed, how money and time are spent, how team members are developed professionally, and what considerations take priority when important business decisions are made.

Stakeholder engagement was the guiding star for many corporate public affairs teams in the early 2000s, however it was eclipsed a few years later when reputation and embedding corporate responsibility became the key objectives.

Stakeholder engagement is back as the primary public affairs objective for many big companies— we expect even more strategies to reflect this in 2016.

2. Social Media Command Centres
The demand and opportunity for real time dialogue with customers, suppliers and socio-political stakeholders across social media channels have prompted more corporations to establish social media ‘command centres’. Organisations use these centres to engage with people and entities most important to them, around the clock.

Organisations such as Dell, AXA, Skoda, and the Red Cross have established highly effective social media command centres to engage stakeholders and manage issues during every hour of every week, and to monitor trending issues and issues likely to require public affairs management.

(In the past, command centres of this nature were typically established on a pro tempore basis only, as part of managing big organisational crises).

These command centres most frequently comprise public affairs, customer service, marketing and social media content production employees working side-by-side, evolving a trend that is seeing communications practitioners working more closely with their customer service and marketing colleagues and using the same real time channels.

Expect more social media command centres to be established in 2016.

3. “Gonna be some sweet sounds, coming down on the night shift …”
This next development drives a sliver of ice into the hearts of most corporate public affairs practitioners.

Whether in a social media command centre, or via working remotely at home, some corporations in Australia and internationally have introduced a public affairs night shift as part of efforts to engage stakeholders via social media channels and manage ongoing issues.

Our discussions with heads of function suggest that the disruptive effect of social media use and reach will demand more flexibility in the formal hours that some public affairs practitioners will be expected to work—including more weekend and night shifts.

Corporations managing global corporate public affairs teams enjoy the advantage of a multi–time zone handover of social media engagement and issues management across geographic teams.

Corporations such as Telstra—a leader in corporate brand digital stakeholder engagement that does not have a global footprint—already roster some practitioners to work on stakeholder engagement via social media outside regular office hours (which for corporate affairs teams frequently extend beyond 6am to 8pm anyway).

Will more corporate public affairs practitioners be working a night shift during and beyond 2016? We are afraid so.

4. Renaissance of the corporate narrative
Considerable work is being done —and even more will be done in 2016— on honing the corporate narrative and on corporate storytelling (the nice and truthful variety) in companies placing stakeholder engagement at the heart of public affairs strategy.

Related to corporate public affairs teams embracing heuristics across their communications, a significant number of blue chip organisations are putting concerted effort into developing and stewarding corporate narratives that are ‘authentic’, which put a human face on the corporation, and that evoke a compelling emotional response among important stakeholders.

This effort includes professional development for public affairs practitioners in heuristics and the sociological and physiological effects of narratives and storytelling; qualitative market testing of corporate narratives; training senior executives in corporate storytelling; and engaging employees to embrace and be able to explain the corporate narrative.

A renewed focus on the corporate narrative means that public affairs practitioners will need to develop skills in new areas, such as heuristics.

5. Public Affairs helping their organisation understand the Asian Century
Whether your organisation is doing business in Shanghai or Singapore, Mumbai or Melbourne, Hong Kong or Hanoi, socio-political ebbs and flows across Asia are affecting businesses and economies across the whole Asia region.

In 2016 – 2017, we expect to see demand from more company boards and management teams for their public affairs team to understand and interpolate economic, social and political events and developments in Asia, make sense of them for the corporation, and counsel how these may affect the company’s operating and enabling environment.

Economic slowing in China, deregulation in India, political and policy gridlock in Indonesia, leadership machinations in Vietnam, a change in the political guard in Taiwan, the US military being invited back to the Philippines, growing political dissent in Malaysia: such developments have the capacity to have an impact on economic confidence, trade, investment and even prices for B2B and retail goods and services prices across the Asia Pacific.

Over the past few years the Centre has seen far more public affairs management functions providing regular updates and counsel to their senior executive team, group strategy, and their board on socio-political developments in Asia, replacing external advisers by becoming the go-to expert on those developments.

We are already seeing a good number of public affairs teams creating the opportunity to be of more value to the corporation by tapping their capabilities and expertise into this area, and providing such counsel as part of business as usual.

We predict a greater thirst for this advice in 2016, especially from boards.

The year ahead
Our best wishes to you for the 2016 working year. We hope you and your team stay in touch with our team at the Centre, seize the opportunities offered by our professional development calendar, make the best use of our web-based Knowledge Centre and our research products, and take advantage of our regular events to connect with your peers and your profession.

The year that was: the Centre’s Top Predictions for 2015
1. Convergence of internal and external communications.
2. More cooperation between public affairs and marketing departments.
3. Application of heuristics to corporate stakeholder communications.
4. Stakeholder research becoming an essential input to public affairs strategy and planning.
5. Advent of a 'common market' for corporate public affairs skills across Australia and Asia.

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The Centre for Corporate Public Affairs is the only entity of its type internationally, connecting, via corporate membership, the corporate public affairs and communication function across Australia, New Zealand and Asia. We assist our members embrace best practice public affairs structure and strategies.

Our research, professional development programs, events and international thought leadership opens doors to help organisations and practitioners build and apply corporate public affairs as a core management tool and function.

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