January 11, 2021

Three trends that will characterize Public Affairs in 2021

A new year equals new perspectives. 2020 was a very special year for everyone - including for the public affairs industry. But what will 2021 bring for Public Affairs which have significantly proven its value and is in higher demand than before Covid-19. Ulobby CEO Anders Kopp Jensen has given it some thought and here presents 3 trends he believe will characterize Public Affairs in 2021:

2020 has for many who work with Public Affairs (PA), been a little too much sweet / sour sauce. 

On the sweet side, the COVID-19 pandemic has meant that PA has been given higher priority. When it comes to fighting for new stimulus packages, negotiations for reopening society or dispensations, PA people have now come very close to the decision-making process in many companies. 

On the sour side, for many PA people, it has been a year that shattered plans and created a new political status quo. During the year - as part of the research work for my book the Public Affairs Engine - I have spoken to many PA people across the EU in the field of climate and energy, who had probably hoped for a slightly different speed in the climate initiatives around Europe.

But that was 2020. A year we will probably all try to forget as soon as possible. So let's instead look ahead and analyze how 2021 will shape Public Affairs work:

1. COVID-19 will not automatically make PA permanently important

COVID-19 has turned many industries upside down, which has meant that the PA team in many places has been given a direct line into the CEO office. I was a participant in a panel debate earlier this year, where it was mentioned by several PA people in large companies that the crisis would push Public Affairs permanently up the power pyramid internally, as the COVID-19 effects would draw traces far into the 20’s . 

I'm personally not so sure. As I describe in my book, which is based on more than 500 conversations with PA people across the EU, the recognition of PA's value creation is often related to whether the company is in "war-time" or "peace-time". COVID-19 can probably be considered war-time, as it has forced many companies to fight for their lives. But the political "war-time" will over time return to a normal state, and other challenges will emerge and hijack the top-of-mind in the executive aisle. Thus, PA will slip back into the old role of "pre COVID-19". Unless the PA team finds another anchor. COVID-19 will not in itself make PA permanently important - and the gradual rollback to "pre COVID-19" will already begin in 2021.

2. PA budgets will grow - especially for digital tools

As a result of COVID-19, Public Affairs has as mentioned got a higher star in the short run. At the same time, most are still sitting and working from home and will probably do so for at least one or two more quarters. And even then, the old familiar working methods and rhythms have probably changed. There will probably be a little more work from home and more zoom meetings than before COVID-19. 

This changing work culture, I think, is becoming a catalyst for a trend that was already in full swing in the PA offices. Namely, that PA people, to a greater extent than just five years ago, are looking for digital tools and software to help them counsel management. There has simply been a maturing of openness towards digital tools. Now, of course, I'm a little biased due to Ulobby's role as a provider of Public Affairs software, but I sincerely believe that we will see many parallels to the evolution in the 00s, where media monitoring software really gained ground. Today, it is difficult to find a communications employee who could imagine doing his or her job without some form of media monitoring. Similarly, I think this trend will happen in the PA industry, just with digital PA tools. The mainstream market will also increasingly adopt these aids, and to base advice solely on gut feelings or political gossip from the network will soon be a thing of the past. 

As mentioned, this development was already underway before COVID-19, so it is not in itself a new trend. But the new thing is in my optics that we will see a higher budget for the consumption of these tools. My bid is that consumption will increase and go from 5-10% of the annual budget to double. In my book, I mention an example with a PA department of 8 men, in a large international company that spent 60,000 euros annually on PA tools alone, which corresponded to just over 10% of the total PA budget. In this company, COVID-19 has meant that consumption for digital PA tools will be +20% in the coming year, and that trend, I think we will see continue. The norm will thus be closer to 15-20% in the coming years.

3. Purpose will be replaced by activism

The last trend I see is perhaps the most controversial. "Purpose" has been an important topic for many companies, and has probably also been turned into a bit of a buzz word in the last few years, where there have been frequent links to the Simon Sinek videos on LinkedIn. However, I think we will see that the trend has peaked. 

Instead, more and more companies will go from preaching purpose to a more activist style, where you select one or maybe a few issues that you hunt hard and aggressively - and of course issues that are not necessarily core business. It is a bit of a trend we have seen in marketing, where it has been a bit more allowed to mean something and use creative tools to get the messages out. I now think that PA will be coupled more on that wagon, and there can actually be more action behind the nice words - or phrases if you will. So if you actually want to change something about the climate or LGBT rights, then you actually want to use PA resources to get it through. 

But one thing is certain; like the rest of the world, the Public Affairs industry is facing an exciting time. We are all in uncharted waters, and it can be both scary, but also a place where you can discover new exciting places. 2021 is just around the corner, the first vaccines have been given, and the political wheel is starting to roll on. 

Happy New Year!

PS: The Public Affairs Engine can be downloaded for free here.

Anders Kopp Jensen

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