Public affairs? – Public Affairs!

Digitalisation and globalisation are transforming our society and raising major challenges for organisations in their wake. Many of them turn to public-affairs specialists who can help them meet the high transparency requirements of a mediatised society while positioning their own interests in a complex political system involving a large number of stakeholders.

14. July 2021

As a sign against a new Hungarian law that restricts the information rights of young people with regard to homosexuality and transsexuality, the Munich City Council wanted the Allianz Arena to glow in rainbow colors for the European Championship match between Germany and Hungary. Now UEFA's public affairs department was called upon. The request was ultimately rejected, and criticism followed.

How and whether UEFA should have made a different decision is not the subject of this article. Rather, we want to explore the question of what the aforementioned public affairs actually is. How does it differ from public relations, why is public affairs needed at all, and what are the current challenges and developments in the field of political communication?

Public …?

Political communication or public affairs is the strategic, communicative exertion of influence on political decision-making processes. Public affairs is therefore an organization's foreign policy, so to speak. Public affairs works at the interface between politics, business and society. The sub-areas of public affairs are numerous and range from issue, stakeholder and risk analysis and management to interest representation and lobbying to reputation management and corporate social responsibility.

Public relations, on the other hand, is part of organizational or corporate communications and, for its part, regulates communication with the various stakeholder groups such as customers, employees, and so on. So when Cristiano Ronaldo puts aside the Coca-Cola bottles at the press conference and shouts "Agua!", this is more something for Coca-Cola's PR department.

Public Affairs also makes use of classic PR instruments such as media relations, personalized communications and events. Particularly important and proven measures are personal communication via broadly developed networks in politics, business and society, as well as alliance building to increase political pressure.

It is clear that public affairs and public relations are very close and that there is a fluid transition. A clear demarcation is very difficult and not really necessary in practice.

An anchor in times of change

Meanwhile, the demand for structured and professional political communication is steadily increasing. There are many reasons for this, some of which we explain below.

Society is increasingly developing zero tolerance for ethical and moral issues. Probably the most recent example of this is the gender star. This increases the number of potential blunders you can put your foot in as an organization. The task of political communication, meanwhile, is to skillfully navigate the organization through the sea of potential "shitstorms." This is all the more challenging if, at the same time, you want to meet society's high demand for transparency, which has developed as a result of increasing mediatization and the influence of digitalization and social media.

In times of globalization and the resulting trans- and supranational interdependence, corporate success depends heavily on the political framework. Due to the dependence on international supply chains and foreign labor, companies are increasingly dependent not only on the national but also on the international political climate. Targeted political influence through lobbying and associations is therefore more important than ever.

The increasing polarization of the two parties with the strongest electoral support, together with the concordance democratic system with all its veto possibilities, has made it massively more difficult to form political majorities in Switzerland. As a result, political decisions are increasingly delayed. Good political communication is therefore crucial for the formation of majorities and thus also for achieving political progress.

The look ahead

Since many of the processes mentioned, such as globalization, are still in progress, we assume that public affairs as a discipline will become even more important in the future. However, current developments certainly also pose challenges for political communication. Digitization is opening up a multitude of new communication channels, although best practice in dealing with them has not yet fully crystallized. Globalization, in turn, multiplies the number of stakeholders to be considered. Old familiar issues such as gender equality or climate change continue to divide society. It therefore remains to be seen in what direction public affairs will develop.

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