Thinking the Unthinkable – 4 Propositions

Public Affairs: 4 Propositions about the Unthinkable (German Reichstag)Even experienced Public Affairs professionals couldn’t have imagined last year’s political changes: Brexit, Trump and the rise of right-wing populist parties throughout Europe. Many citizens have snubbed elites, turning their back on traditional political structures and norms. Looking back is scary for many Public Affairs professionals, looking forward shaped by great insecurity.

In view of the upcoming elections in European neighboring countries and the German Federal Elections in September, businesses and associations raise the question, if and how changing conditions will affect their political communication; this question has been discussed at this year’s Public Affairs Trend Lab Berlin Summit on February 16th and 17th in Berlin.

Our Public Affairs Head, Judith Kleinemeyer, has thought the unthinkable and come up with four propositions:

1. Clash of Cultures. While politics and societies increasingly strive for nationalism and simplification, businesses and value chains become more and more global and complex.

Due to increasing globalization and interdependence, businesses have become more prone to political and economic tremors. At the same time, identifying and prioritizing potential risks has become more and more difficult. While businesses tend to simply accept these developments, parts of the population increasingly feel left out and are not afraid of venting their displeasure in public. Driven by an, as it seems, growing disaffection, national politics increasingly tries to offer simple solutions for complex problems. The result: Populism and protectionism are gaining ground.

2. Bottom-Up Movement. Political decision makers and processes are increasingly under pressure through social media and grass root campaigns.

The Brexit referendum and Trump’s election have clearly shown the vulnerability of political processes to politicking and grassroot campaigns. Traditionally, these campaigns are a lot more influential in the Anglo-American sphere, but they do gain importance in Germany as well – thus challenging traditional party systems and depriving companies of their planning security. Due to the growing popularity of interest-led media platforms and today’s rapid distribution of information, traditional media is losing ground; fake news is frequently taken at face value. In consequence, we observe a new quality of reputational risks – both for political stakeholders and businesses.

3. Numerous & Invisible. Political players become more various and invisible.

Today, online platforms give actors “outside” the established political system the chance to exert great influence on political processes as well as to promote new social and political movements. Barely relying on traditional media, these actors are difficult to grasp and identify, which makes strategic communication increasingly difficult.

4. Speak Out! Companies are forced to position themselves with regards to current political developments and consequently turn into political players.

Companies increasingly give up their role as neutral player, actively participating in the political debate – both willingly and unwillingly. Due to global interconnectedness and media shit storms, regardless of whether it is planned or not, political commitment is at risk of becoming a reputational risk, which is difficult to control.

What do these developments mean for our Public Affairs work?

Today, global businesses increasingly face the challenge of national isolationism. Companies are more than mere economic actors, they are political players. Their environment is confusing, their stakeholder network widely ramified. Faced with these challenges, companies need to be able to react quickly and target-oriented; building a network and gaining access to industry-specific expertise is crucial in order to develop individual strategies for action.

It becomes clear: Working in the political sphere is still a “people‘s business“, and everybody needs to know their protagonists. Today, thinking outside the regulatory box is necessary; that means strategically linking public affairs to other fields, for instance, crisis communication, media, and digital communication. Public Affairs cannot be regarded as an “add-on” anymore, but needs to be seen as an integral component of every successful business strategy.