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Public Affairs Insights from the Centre

9 Jan 2018

The Centre’s Top Five public affairs predictions for 2018

Wayne Burns

As the gym named Resolution begins to morph into a bar named Regret now that New Year pledges are falling to the wayside, it is time again for the Centre to offer up its five predictions for the practice of corporate public affairs in Australia for the coming year.

Our predictions for 2017 (see the end of this post) largely came to pass, including the continuing positive development of more women leading corporate public affairs functions, more functions expecting practitioners to develop digital communication production capabilities, and more teams taking an axe to their corporate intranets and replacing them with technology and device agnostic platforms and social media networks.

The public affairs management function in the corporate sphere continues to be disrupted by how societies here and globally consume information and interact with institutions, including companies and governments. Disruption in business and how stakeholders are engaged has been constant over centuries. It is the pace of that disruption that will continue to be a big challenge for the corporate public affairs function this year.

Based on our conversations with corporate public affairs leaders, CEOs, boards of governance, as well as our own insights, here are our Top Five Predictions for 2018.

1. Psychographic-profiling, which scrapes data from social media accounts to develop a unique socio-political profile of an individual, will be considered more widely by corporate public affairs teams in their public advocacy and stakeholder engagement.

This use of Big Data was at the centre of the Trump US presidential campaign in 2016 to identify and target voters, and it generated privacy-related controversy at the time.

More industry groups and corporations in the US and Australia are using data in this way to inform advocacy and public information campaign tactics and modus operandi.

The marketing management function has been harnessing Big Data extensively to inform its strategies and campaigns. The corporate public affairs function is next off the rank; though navigating ethics, personal privacy, and corporate reputational implications of using Big Data to achieve public affairs ends, will loom large.

2. Boards want more frequent reputation research. According to the Centre’s 2015 State of Public Affairs in Australia, about 60 per cent of large companies conduct stakeholder reputation research.

The Centre forecasts that in 2018 company boards of governance will want to be more engaged with such reputation research, and if that research is not available annually, board directors will be asking that it be so.

While reputation research is an important input to corporate public affairs strategy and tactics in most leading Australian companies, more boards are signalling they want to unpack and understand corporate reputation and its drivers to inform their own strategy deliberations.

The 2017 levy/special tax on Australia’s largest banks, the Royal Commission into Australia’s financial institutions announced last year, and events such as United Airlines’ “passenger deplaning” snafu in April last year, had many more boards asking about the reputational health of their company, and wanting that health update more frequently.

We’re expecting more boards will ask management to conduct reputation research annually so directors have contemporary reputation readings in an information and reputation economy that continues to be disrupted at pace. (We note some corporations in high socio-political risk sectors are conducting stakeholder reputation research twice annually).

3. More demand for generalist practitioners. Demand across the profession for more all-rounders in corporate public affairs teams has been growing. We forecast that recruitment firms will receive more briefs than ever before seeking public affairs practitioners with capabilities and experience across disciplines – internal and external communications, government relations, corporate responsibility, stakeholder engagement, corporate brand management, reputation research and metrics, and issues management.

Specialists will continue to be in demand in disciplines such as government relations and corporate responsibility.

However, more Heads of Function are leading teams in which practitioners are sought, or being developed, to be high-functioning issues managers, stakeholder engagers, stakeholder communicators (including generating digital content), and to understand government relations and corporate responsibility communications.

Practitioners with broader capability across disciplines are far more readily assigned to manage priority issues and work on projects above and beyond business as usual, or to work on business as usual as specialist teams manage black swan issues, or crises.

4. Many public affairs teams will get bigger. Centre research in 2015 concluded that the average headcount in a corporate public affairs team in companies in Australia was 13.5, and 3.1 in industry associations.

We forecast that during this year, teams in many, many organisations will increase headcount, driven primarily by socio-political pressures on corporate reputation and digital media disruption, and demand for more issues management capacity emanating from those drivers.

Full time equivalent employee numbers and outsourcing for additional capability and capacity has been increasing in corporations and governments post the GFC.

Since 2015, more teams have moved to insource digital content production and issues management.

And although headcount tends to vary considerably by industry – and be influenced also by the business cycle of individual sectors – the move is on for the average headcount in the function to increase this calendar year.

5. Corporate brand management is back in the function. 2018 will be a year that will see more organisations move managing the corporate brand – the stakeholder brand – into the corporate public affairs function.

About half of companies in Australia manage their corporate brand in public affairs. Most of these see the corporate brand as the company’s offer and promise to investors, regulators, legislators, civil society, employees, the news media, and opinion leaders – socio-political stakeholders.

Up until a few years ago, marketing departments (especially in B2C entities) managed the corporate and retail brands (even if the corporate brand was the retail brand).

Regulatory, political, legislative, and reputational issues and developments, and the socio-political orientation of the corporate public affairs function, have fuelled deliberations around corporate brand management being managed in public affairs, with corporate brand management and reputation stewardship aligned more snugly.

We forecast this trend will continue, and continue to pick up momentum in 2018.

The year that was: the Centre’s Top Predictions for 2017
1. The evidence-base Arms Race.
2. The beginning of the end of the corporate Intranet.
3. The digital production-savvy corporate public affairs practitioner.
4. Infographic mania.
5. More women leading the management function.

The year that was: the Centre’s Top Predictions for 2016
1. Stakeholders at the heart of corporate public affairs strategy.
2. Social Media Command Centres.
3. Public affairs night shifts will be introduced in some organisations to monitor issues, and provide rapid socio-political response.
4. Renaissance of the corporate narrative.
5. Public Affairs helping their organisation understand the Asian Century.

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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10 Jun 2008

Now is the time for all good public affairs practitioners to come to the aid - of themselves!

Wayne Burns

It is June, so it must be Melbourne, Australia. And if its August, it would be Hong Kong.

These are the months and the cities when my mind - and the efforts of the staff at Centre for Corporate Public Affairs - turn to heavy-duty professional development - via our long established residential public affairs institutes.

For 19 years in Australia and four years in Asia, the Centre's corporate public affairs Institutes have been attracting practitioners across the globe.

These unique public affairs executive education deep-dives - and the unique word is not used lightly - have been held up as being best practice internationally.

They highlight something that corporate public affairs practitioners do not do enough. Think about themselves. And more specifically, their own professional development.

It's fast. It's frenzied. It's public affairs in large organisations. Issues flying thick and fast. New business challenges. Roadblocks. Fresh opportunities and decisions to juggle emerging each day. It can be crazy. And that is why it is fun.

But what is not fast moving in this business environment is practitioners' focus on their needs as business executives, and assets to their organisation.

The corporate public affairs practitioner, unlike most other executives in their organisations, does not have access to breadth of development and executive education opportunities that collegaues can access in areas such as human resources, marketing, finance , group strategy or legal counsel.

With seemingly limited opportunities, what to do?

1. Lock into programs offered by the Centre for Corporate Public Affairs (self-promotion, but the word on the street is that we offer excellent programs anchored in international best practice and applying this to practical application). With our sibling organisation the US Public Affairs Council we are the only organisations of our type internationally committed to research, professional development and learning in corporate public affairs.

2. Develop your own professional development map. Take control of your professional development, as it is unlikely that someone is going to do this for you. Negotiate this plan of YOURS with your manager. In this regard, I'd advise you to hunt for professional development opportunities that extend your scope in management, and not just public affairs. Finance. Business Strategy. Organisational Effectiveness. If it interests you and adds to your understanding of business beyond public affairs, all the better.

3. Seek and engage a mentor. Whatever our age or your career development, none of us are beyond external, dispassionate counsel, advice and guidance. Poking your head out of your work silo five or six times a year and seeking guidance and advice from a mentor, who has access also to your own boss for their view and input, is career gold .

4. And also, think about buddying-up with a peer outside the competitive hurly-burly of your own company to compare your development progress, network contacts and learning, and next steps to position you in your career. The benefits of this are that it is good to get a reality check outside the culture and morays of your workplace, it is good to have another dispassionate view of someone who knows you at least a little, and also advisable to listen to another viewpoint to mine insights for you. As well, giving back to your buddy by playing the role you want them to play for you will possibly make you feel you have done something good for a peer, which can't be bad.

So, a few pointers that may be of use. The main message though, is think about yourself for once!

This is one instance when being accused of being selfish is justified: good for your employer, good for those working with you, and coincidentally, good for you.

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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.

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