Communications professional Adip Puri believes public affairs is at an inflection point in India

After the transformation in PR prompted by digital, we are once again at another inflexion point. There is an upsurge in public affairs today.

There are a number of skill sets which go into making a successful 'Public Affairs' professional and inherent skill sets present in PR professionals uniquely positions them to take advantage and diversify their career opportunities in 'Public Affairs'.

How have organisations in India dealt with 'Public Affairs'?

Traditionally, the corporate or public affairs role, especially in Indian companies, has been served by the CEO who was responsible for knowing “important people” that could impact the business. 

For many companies, this role is taken up by employees who are already dealing with these stakeholders - they can be from the supply chain, sales or marketing. 

Legal is still one of the preferred departments to take up a public affairs mandate, as policies and regulations require compliance.

 However, many companies have realized that the government is an important stakeholder and have started hiring professionals who understand policy-making and political compulsions, and who can communicate effectively while building relationships with a large set of stakeholders.

Why is their natural chemistry and synergy between PA and PR?

 Public Affairs is not very different from PR it requires some key skill sets which come naturally to a PR professional such as:

  1. Stakeholder engagement:  For example, if you were working with an aviation company and had to recommend changes on a certain policy or regulation, you would likely be dealing with the Ministry of Civil Aviation and Directorate General of Civil Aviation who will decide whether such a policy or regulation can be revised. At the same time, you may be required to deal with certain influencers who cannot decide whether the policy or regulation should be revised, but whose opinion on the policy or regulation matters to the government. These could be industry associations like CII and FICCI, who represent the industry voice, think tanks that advise the government on policy and the media the closely watches and reports on the changes. Therefore, a PA professional is dealing with several stakeholders at any given point in time, which is not very different from a PR professional who is also dealing with multiple stakeholders such as the media, the client and the larger community.
  2. Creating impactful narratives and messages  Many times, a PA professional is expected to articulate the stand on a certain policy or regulation to government officials who are short of time. Being able to explain complex policy issues and putting them into context in a crisp and palatable manner is an art which PA professionals need frequently. This is not very different from the task of identifying news angles, key messages and proof points which PR professionals do to make stories more desirable and of use to media.
  3. Understanding how media works: Most of our understanding of the work being done by the government comes through what we read in newspapers and see on television news channels. Understanding media is an important skill for any PA professional and a non-negotiable one for any successful PR professional.
  4. Reputation management: a Public Affairs professional represents the company and its position on various legislation and policies. These usually occur through engagement with officials, participation in consultations, understanding of industry associations or expressing opinions through various public platforms such as events and conventions. Similar to a PR professional, who protects and defends a brand and its core values, PA professionals work on removing ambiguity that can impact business continuity.

To summarize, 

How can PR professionals build skill sets in public affairs?

Most big PR firms offer PA as a separate service, while traditional PA firms also hire PR professionals for their media expertise. A good start would be for PR professionals to start working with the PA practice in their firm, if available. In some agencies, PA and PR teams work together on mandates, which helps build cross-functional knowledge and skills.

For in-house communicators, a good start would be to read and understand how policy changes in their industry can impact the business of the company and then slowly start to engage with these stakeholders. Many of my clients do not have a public policy background but have started dealing with these expanded set of stakeholders due to business requirements.

An important skill set required for public affairs is an appreciation of public policy - how the government functions, how policies are framed at the state and national level and how different stakeholders, such as industry associations, think tanks and the development sector play a crucial role in the policy-making process.

What does this mean for the PR industry and corporate communication professionals?

By honing additional PA skill sets, PR and corporate communication professionals can tap into a broader set of stakeholders and can pick up on early warning signals in the eco-system, bring it to the notice of the leadership and prepare them to deal with newer policies, rules and regulations that have a direct bearing on company business. This gives the communication professional more avenues to add value to their clients and many more reasons to have a seat at the table!

Adip Puri is a senior consultant at APCO Worldwide, India. Views are personal.

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