How we see things
Communications has changed radically in the last decade. Organisations are exposed to public opinion like never before. They need to engage with the public to shape their reputations and lead debates on issues that matter.
Communication is key
Public First’s Founding Partners – James Frayne and Rachel Wolf – have worked at the highest levels of Government, political communications and public policy. Over the last two decades, we have formed two major conclusions about communications and public affairs. These now drive what we do at Public First.
(a) The power of the public
The public voice is now the most powerful in forming the reputation of modern brands. A decade ago communications was an elite affair. Businesses, charities and others could shape their reputation and key issues relating to their operations through a mixture of top-down advertising, media relations and discreet and targeted lobbying. With the rise of digital communications, reputation and issues management have been turned on their head.
Now, ordinary people largely make the reputations of organisations in the public eye through huge online conversations that engage vast numbers of people. Consumers are deeply affected by what they read about organisations on social media platforms, web forums, blogs and specialist websites. And, in turn, the media, politicians, civil servants and regulators are increasingly influenced by their exposure to public opinion and these conversations.
There are no hiding places for any organisations now. Once, major businesses could simply focus on the delivery of high quality goods and services. Now, these organisations are dragged into public conversations not only on the merits of their work, but on their recruitment practices, their wider ethics, their stand on an ever-changing list of key public issues and even the performances of senior staff on the media.
Organisations can only hope to be the leading voice in this conversation, persuading the public about the merits of their brand and their case on key issues. In this way, communications has become like political campaigning. Developing and maintaining a strong brand is done via a two-way conversation. An organisation’s brand is only strong if the public agree.
Organisations must think public first. That means following in detail what the public are saying about their organisation and issues they care about, using polling to work out why people take the views they do and engaging with people directly and through the media to put their organisation’s case.
Furthermore, it means businesses that want to change public policy should mobilise sympathetic public voices behind such change. There are no silver bullets in communications and public affairs – but the nearest thing is the use of campaigns that mobilise persuasive public voices. There are many examples where Governments have been persuaded down a particular route because they did not want to be on the wrong side of public opinion.
(b) The need for practical policy design
The second conclusion is that organisations that want to change public policy need to come up with practical solutions themselves. In our consultants’ time in Government, we lost count of the number of times outside organisations – be they businesses, charities, trade associations or even think tanks – expressed dismay at Government policy but were unable to provide workable alternatives. While many organisations talked generally about the broad principles Government should follow, few could explain specifically how policy should change. Often organisations would spend months trying to get meetings with ministers or advisers, only for the result to be a worsened relationship and irritation on both sides.
Outside organisations are missing huge opportunities. The reality for those in Government and politics generally is that they do not have the time to think in depth about every policy they come across. They are therefore extremely open to concrete, outside ideas that will help them further their governing or campaigning goals. It is down to external organisations to provide them.
To be clear, advice in the form of broad principles is useless. Politicians need fully worked-up policy ideas – and they need to be politically realistic. That does not mean that every policy has to be an election winner but it does mean that policies must be politically thoughtful as well as practical.
To read more about our approach, read James Frayne’s book, Meet the People