services & publications: Information technology and issues management/ public affairs

[article published in The Public Affairs Newsletter, October 2002]

by Andrew A. Napier

(London, September 2002) Advances in IT over the last decade have not only enabled more efficient and cost-effective management of important external, political and other business-critical issues, but arguably have also revolutionised public affairs, at least in the 'best practice' companies and organisations.

In the mid-1990s many public affairs practitioners got a wake-up call when they realised that TV networks were happy to use the highly professional VNRs (video news releases) offered by campaign groups like Greenpeace to further causes such as preventing the planned disposal of the Brent Spar oil rig. Public opinion and political support could be quickly galvanised against target companies, which had often been carefully working through its options with government.

Companies and organisations have always used whatever technology can be justified to deliver results more efficiently and cost-effectively - but the rapid changes in communication technology, especially the internet, have rewritten the rules. Above all, advances in IT offer the opportunity for 'best practice' companies (and NGOs) to gain a competitive advantage in each of the stages of issues management:

  • Monitoring and forecasting
  • Impact analysis
  • Prioritisation
  • Action (internal and external)

Governments - at all levels - have also been able to change the way they communicate amongst themselves and with interested parties.

Of all the impacts that IT and the internet have been having on public affairs, I believe that there are three that have led to a greater professionalisation of the profession:

  • first, greater use of internet-based communications by all parties in the influence-chain (NGOs, business, media, governments etc) has increased the potential instantaneity, global reach and impact of the issues - and thus increased the need for management and public affairs practitioners to be more alert to the potential importance of many external issues
  • second, raw information and basic research costs nothing in the internet age, extra resources can only be justified for filtering, impact analysis and other value-added services
  • third, NGOs, affinity groups and single-interest campaigners can mount powerful, global challenges relatively cheaply

This third phenomenon has led to a bewildering array of campaigns - in many cases the NGOs have much larger campaigning budgets and resources than the corporations that they target, and they can run many hard-hitting campaigns at once.

The first phenomenon - the spread and instantaneity of communication - has arguably had further impacts on the conduct of public affairs and corporate communications, by increasing the need for:

  • transparency and consistency
  • instant, focused, relevant information for one's own people
  • greater awareness of reputational risk (including probity, trust, consumer, social and environmental performance etc)
  • simple, easily understandable messages
  • inter-active systems and solutions

Also communicating on issues is no longer the preserve of public affairs professionals - if it ever was. A key role now is briefing and communications training for top executives on key issues.

As often reported in the media, some of the largest campaigns - especially the anti-globalisation mega-protests - have been set up using mainly mobile phones and the internet. Recent benchmarking exercises have shown that 'best practice' issues management now often uses the full gamut of information technology:

  • e-mail, websites and voice & data telecoms - for instant communication
  • intranets, extranets, messaging etc - for interactive development and communication of positions and action on issues
  • PDAs, laptops and IT-rich mobile phones - as media for the above
  • VNRs, webcasts, video-streaming and video-conferencing - for specific programmes

Furthermore the best issues management is fully integrated into the management systems and processes of the company or organisation concerned, and is thus integrated into the key enterprise IT systems. For example, prioritisation of issues may be decided in relation to core-measurables such as bottom-line impact, strategic (and competitive) potential and ability to influence.

As the technology develops, so may public affairs: forward communication planning may also need to take account of the future infrastructure development, such as:

  • mobile telephony: the addition of GPRS and 3G to GSM
  • wireless networks and collaborative software
  • the convergence of broadcasting, mobile telephony and interactive TV (and maybe also of networks, if some of the early work on 4G is confirmed)

As mentioned earlier, one of the principal challenges for the public affairs practitioner is that everyone else in the influence-chain has greater or lesser access to the same technology - and every one may arguably be trying to influence all the others on issues of importance to them:

  • NGOs, activists, campaigners, theme-based affinity groups
  • the media
  • opinion leaders
  • companies and other organisations
  • all stakeholders - including consumers and business partners
  • business/industry/trade associations
  • governments (officials, committees and political) at all levels:
    • community/regional
    • national
    • geographic/regional intergovernmental (e.g. EU, NAFTA, Mercosur etc),
    • global/ intergovernmental (UN, WTO, OECD etc)

Plotting one's way through this Babel of inter-linked communications and devising systems to manage them in the interests of your company, organisation or client is not for the faint-hearted. In today's communications-rich world, effective issues management also requires a broad perspective on business and its interactions with society, and an awareness of the possibilities offered by advances in information technology, which impacts on all of the above.


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