Public Affairs leaders are ready to make an impact in 2021

Tim Snowball, Head of Public Affairs, FleishmanHillard Fishburn

At the end of 2020, FleishmanHillard Fishburn launched its first major survey of in-house public affairs leaders. We left most of the questions open-ended to allow respondents the freedom to share what was really on their minds.

The participants covered a wide range of sectors. Most were not current FleishmanHillard clients.

This is a summary of what we learned:

 

Brexit and Covid-19 made progress on wider public affairs goals difficult in 2020

As expected, Covid-19 and Brexit dominated responses about the primary challenges of 2020. But what also came through was the negative impact constant uncertainty and change had had on the ability of in-house teams to address other policy and regulatory priorities important to their businesses. This included sustainability, public health and diversity. Several respondents expressed personal anxieties about employment security during a difficult year, while others highlighted the intense demands placed on limited internal resources.

Public affairs leaders recognise their opportunity to make an impact in 2021

Looking to 2021, many respondents said they felt excited by opportunities to increasingly shape organisational strategy, values or even drive societal change. This perhaps reflects the increased status of public affairs as a function, with in-house leaders increasingly called upon to help shape or inform boardroom decisions on business-critical operational matters.

‘Building Back Better’, means prioritising the economy and the environment

The country’s economic recovery from the pandemic topped most respondents’ priority lists for the year ahead. The environment and sustainability came a close second. Notably, Brexit and trade slipped into a broader range of “other issues”, with concerns now more specifically focused on either the shape of future regulation or continued market access.

COP26 is a big focus for this year, with external consultancy support valued

The COP26 Climate Change Summit was listed as a “high” or “top” priority by 43% of respondents. With another 22% recognising COP26 as “one of many priorities” for the year. Levels of planning for COP26 varied widely, with some respondents reporting that they were already extensively engaged on it, with others clearly looking to trade associations and industry bodies for leadership. For those businesses already engaged, the focus was on shaping their corporate narrative, promoting their own commitments and track record, or tying down sponsorships, speaking slots, thought leadership opportunities or exhibition space.

Several respondents talked of the importance and value of industry-wide commitments and partnerships and many recognised the need for businesses to demonstrate real change to make an impact during this COP26 year. The challenge of securing internal ‘buy-in’ was noted by some.

In welcome news for FleishmanHillard’s COP26 Unit, 47% of respondents said they were likely to use an external agency for COP26 related support. Please don’t hesitate to get in touch with our COP26 Unit if you would like more information about what we can offer.

There is a clear desire for wider cross-industry collaboration

In-house professionals said they wanted to see a renewed commitment to ethics and a more collaborative approach within the public affairs industry. There is a clear perception that working together will be critical to making progress when tackling big challenges like Covid-19 and the environment. Amid the gloom of a new national lockdown, increasing networking opportunities and in-person connectivity were clear aspirations for many. One or two respondents were apparently itching for the return of “lunching”!

With budgets under pressure, increased proactivity is a top objective for in-house teams

When it came to the change desired from in-house teams, “increasing proactivity” stood out clearly as a top concern. There was a wish to see more active engagement around key issues and stakeholder relations and for those facing financial pressures, this was even more important. 50% of respondents felt confident that their budget would remain at around the same level in 2021. 10% expected an increase, but 30% were concerned they would face a cut.

Public affairs agencies need to be ready to work harder to support their clients’ focus on the long term

When it came to agency support, in-house leaders identified strategic counsel and long-term planning as the primary value-adds. Several respondents also highlighted the importance of increasingly presenting intelligence in an executive ready format. Polling stood out as an area where consultancy input would be needed, with 38% suggesting they were likely to seek help in this area in the year ahead. In line with a long-term trend, we have certainly seen in recent years, 70% said they would adopt a project-based approach when engaging agencies, versus 55% expecting to use retainers.

 

Get in touch to find out how FleishmanHillard can support you with your Public Affairs needs in 2021.