Having a public affairs strategy is critical for every organization, regardless of the organization’s history, size, or sector.
Communications, advertising & marketing, news & media, internet virality…information about your organization flows through a lot of different channels and can be shaped by a lot of different hands. But for most organizations, the foundation for interacting with their target audiences begins with public affairs.
Public affairs, simply put, is how a company interacts with its stakeholders. This includes their thought leadership, messaging to key stakeholders directly or through media, and advocacy. When it is intentional and thoughtful, a public affairs strategy will maximize your organization’s reputation and relevancy.
The biggest mistake companies make when it comes to public affairs is thinking it’s not relevant to their organization. It’s not a switch you can turn on and off; it takes time and pays dividends over months and years. When your organization urgently needs a policy decision or a stakeholder connection, it can be too late to start from scratch. Even resource constrained startups can and should think about building their profile.
Here are six key principles to keep in mind as you create and evolve your organization’s public affairs strategy.
Align your public affairs strategy with your organization’s overall strategy
Smart prioritization is the name of the game. Public affairs is not just about the organization’s reputation, it’s also about furthering the organization’s goals. This means it’s critical that both strategies are in alignment. For each pillar of the organizations’ strategic plan, you should be identifying the one or two most important things you can do in the public affairs arena to make a difference. By doing so you not only serve the organization’s best interests, you avoid mission creep and keep your resource needs in check.
Identify the most important audiences
Once you’ve chosen your strategic priorities, you need to identify your most important audiences. This is often where we see organizations lose effectiveness: they are spending energy engaging the wrong people.
One mistake we see often is companies saying yes to every invitation and meeting, diluting their effectiveness. Relationships take time to build, so one meeting with each important party is usually not enough to achieve your objectives. That means decisions must be made about which repeat engagements get prioritized, and which get placed on hold.
The other mistake we see organizations make? They neglect to shift their target audiences as the company evolves. A (hypothetical!) startup that builds agricultural tech based on artificial intelligence, for instance, likely began their business with connections in the tech and venture capital worlds. Maybe they even focused on policymakers and agencies that regulate tech and AI. But as the startup moves out of the pilot stage and begin to expand product adaptation to farms across the United States, the target audience should shift. In this (hypothetical) case, it might make sense to target state and local governments, farming communities, and agricultural associations. The important thing here is re-assessment and evolution.
Develop messaging that is relevant and compelling
Now that you know who you’re talking to, you can figure out how to deliver your message. The message should be authentic to you, but also compelling and relevant for your interlocutor. In governments and legislatures, this also means navigating different political and ideological viewpoints.
Relevant messaging provides information a listener needs in a way they can understand. A congressional staffer is usually a very smart generalist who covers a dozen topics – so they need a clear explanation and a concrete ask. By contrast, a regulatory attorney at a federal agency will want to go deep into details on a narrow issue set. And if a member of Congress publicly questions whether climate change is happening, they probably won’t be persuaded by the climate mitigation benefits of your work. But they will be excited to learn that you want to create 200 new jobs in their district.
Take the time to consider the perspectives of your listener, and share your message in a way that makes sense to them.
Empower effective spokespersons
In an executive leadership team, some personalities will naturally be more suited to public affairs work than others. Identifying and training these people will provide you with flexibility and spread the workload among multiple people. Sometimes only the CEO will do, but in other cases, a subject matter expert or the most charismatic senior leader may be the better choice. Related to this, a company who focuses only on a single executive’s thought leadership is likely straining their workload with too many engagements, taking them away from other critical business issues.
Show up in the right forums
You want to be where your audience is. This may mean media hits in the home district of a member of Congress, connecting with biodiversity nonprofits in a specific state, or speaking at certain “inside the Beltway” events in Washington. By thinking critically about where your audience is, you can effectively dedicate your limited time and resources.
Remember, it’s a work in progress
Whether you’re a company transitioning from startup to scaleup, a nonprofit whose strategic focus has shifted, or an established, multinational corporation, it’s important to make sure your public affairs strategy evolves as your organization does – and as the world around you changes. It can be easy to simply add new items to your to-do list, but your organization’s resources can quickly become overwhelmed. Updating your public affairs strategy on a regular basis will make you more relevant and improve your strategic outcomes, while keeping your resource use in check.