The Niira Radia fiasco was a watershed moment for corporate-government relations and made it clear that underhanded lobbying comes with immense risks in an India with increasing openness of information. It demonstrated that companies need to go beyond plain lobbying and engage in what is termed as Public Affairs. Public affairs professionals are policy advocates. They are individuals tasked with persuading politicians, bureaucrats, civil society and the general citizenry about the need for specific policy changes. It is their job to persuade people that private interests can be aligned with the public interest, as it can be. As such, these professionals need to be cognisant of the wider ramifications that policy decisions have on the corporate interests they represent.
India is in the third phase of its corporate-government relations. The first phase was before 1991, where license raj meant that companies had to go as supplicants with begging bowls to governments, to be allotted their licenses and better manufacturing quotas.
The second phase of corporate-government relations was between 1991 and roughly 2009, where companies tried to create me-sized loopholes that allowed them to “fix” government policies such that they could benefit from government rule-making, but their competitors could not. By the time of Niira Radia, thanks to RTIs, PILs, more transparency and more investigative media – not only were these dodgy advantages getting reversed, but companies’ reputations were getting dragged through the mud.
Since 2009, a third phase of corporate-government relations have slowly but surely started, where enough corporate houses and other organisations feel the need to engage or employ people who can be above board, and can transparently and professionally further their interests in the policy arena.
Public affairs is growing in India, and public affairs professionals cannot be created out of thin air. Public relations professionals have the network and a background in communication that makes it possible for them to switch tracks and enter the public affairs profession with the right passion and the right training. The following industries are set to witness a rise in the importance of public affairs in 2018:
Technology driven companies – From urban mobility to e-commerce platforms to cloud-computing, companies such as Ola, Uber, Flipkart, Tata Elxsi, etc., are disrupting various industries and are driving the world’s greatest innovations. These companies, however, operate in a policy void. For instance, taxi aggregators, like Ola and Uber have had to deal with regulatory authorities and state governments to shape policies around surge pricing, passenger safety, adoption of electric vehicles, etc. Tech-driven companies are, therefore, going to play a pivotal role in shaping the public policy in their sectors. Such companies will see a growth in their public affairs departments and will need a dedicated set of professionals to manage their relationship with various stakeholders.
Biotechnology sector – India is among the top 12 destinations for biotechnology in the world and the 3rd ranked country in Asia. It also has a network of over 8.5 million scientists and researchers with established infrastructure in Hyderabad and Bangalore. Although the biotech sector is rapidly expanding in India, the regulatory landscape in the sector is very rigid and opaque. As has been clear from the GMO debate in the past, conflicting interests prevail and any attempt to change the regulation is met with a lot of public backlash. Public affairs would play a large role in identifying issues and stakeholders during various stages of development of new drugs and technologies. Policies and narrative in each of these stages – fundamental research and development, clinical trials, and roll-out would need to be managed differently. The PA professionals in the biotech companies will need to create narratives that highlight the need for policy changes and the positive effects that they can engender.
MNCs wanting to enter India or expand in India – Whether it’s companies like Wal-Mart and IKEA that want to enter India, or organisations like Amazon and Facebook that are expanding their footprint in India, it is clear that these MNCs will need trained public affairs professionals to navigate India’s policy landscape, and to engage with the government. Facebook’s Free Basics fiasco demonstrated that such companies have a lot at stake in terms of their reputation and need to actively manage public perception. In fact, Facebook has been in the news for its leadership hires in its public affairs team. IKEA has an open position for a public affairs specialist in India, as of writing this.
Mobile Payments and Digital wallets – Digital payments in India is a new and fast-growing space. In order to grow their businesses, mobile payment platforms like PayTm, BHIM, and UPI need to capitalise on opportunities. In order to do so, they would need public affairs professionals to actively ward off threats and capitalise on opportunities.