The following article is a reproduction of an opinion piece I wrote for the Sunday Business Post site – original article here

Paul O’Brien – Director of Public Affairs at Drury | Porter Novelli

Public affairs industry no longer about the book of contacts

Much like the Irish political system, the Irish public affairs industry has also undergone substantial change in recent years. As recently as January 1, a new code of conduct for lobbying came into force from the Standards in Public Office Commission. This is timely, as the perception of public affairs as pin-striped men using their black book of contacts to meet in smoky rooms to lobby for change is fast becoming outdated.

Today, public affairs is a core service for many communications agencies and is a growing management role within organisations. Modern day public affairs professionals recognise that the old ways are no longer good enough to achieve results.

The key skills that clients seek out are a proven record as a problem solver and an adviser with a genuine insight into how decisions get made and how our political system works. Organisations have ever-increasing complex public policy or stakeholder issues and need expert guidance to help them design solutions that have the best chance of being accepted and implemented.

As a former senior adviser in the Department of the Taoiseach, I have seen first-hand the two extremes in contrasting approaches by public affairs professionals. The outdated approach saw the traditional ‘lobbyist’ leveraging contacts to simply land problems at the door of politicians and officials, and expecting them to solve them on their behalf. At its worst, it can feel like meetings being organised for meetings’ sake.

This traditional approach based on established contacts is increasingly irrelevant. In politics, a new generation of politicians is rising to the top across all parties, embracing new ways of evidence-based policy-making. In addition, across the public service, new reforms in mobility of senior managers and open recruitment have resulted in a healthy rotation of staff.

The more effective approach is solution-focused, where the public affairs adviser works with the client to develop a mutually acceptable path forward which understands the complex policy environment officials have to operate in.

in lots of policy areas, businesses, charities and other organisations have unique insight into different markets, emerging technology and social problems that the Government can’t match

Ireland’s first minority Government is unlikely to be the last, which has placed the Dáil in a more influential policy-making position. In the past, many public policy strategies focused exclusively on Government, but today a deep understanding of the Dáil, how it makes decisions and all of its political parties is essential.

The introduction of the new lobbying laws has also helped usher in change by providing a requirement for transparent engagement with senior officials. This reform has been broadly welcomed by the industry and public officials alike.

There is an expectation that Government should know everything, but in lots of policy areas, businesses, charities and other organisations have unique insight into different markets, emerging technology and social problems that the Government can’t match.

The best public officials seek out this knowledge to help them design a better public policy response to emerging challenges. For example, the Government would regularly take on board the views of industry when designing new tax codes or regulations for a sector. The lobbying laws help facilitate these interactions in a way that protects everyone.

Much like the wider PR industry, the work of the public affairs professional is also much broader. In an age where anything can go viral or campaigns can spring up out of nowhere, there is a greater value attached to stakeholder management than ever before.

Businesses generally know a lot about their customers, but can run into real difficulties when trying to communicate with the general public or specific communities. One wrong move can have serious consequences for the operations or reputation of a business. Designing and implementing genuine consultation processes has now become a key offering for the industry.

Whether it’s navigating Irish new politics, Brexit or ongoing instability, the role of the public affairs professional continues to evolve as the problems facing organisations become more complex or significant. Those who can adapt to a future industry that is based on problem solving will endure; those that rely on their book of old contacts will struggle to be relevant.

Paul O’Brien

Director of Public Affairs at Drury | Porter Novelli