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Australian public affairs: links to European corporate

communication
Author(s):
Maud Tixier (Maud Tixier is based at the ESSEC Graduate School of Management,
CergyPontoise, France.)
Citation:
Maud Tixier, (2000) "Australian public affairs: links to European corporate
communication", Corporate Communications: An International Journal, Vol. 5 Iss: 3,
pp.152 - 157
DOI
http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/13563280010377545
Downloads:
The fulltext of this document has been downloaded 564 times since 2006
Acknowledgements:
Many thanks are addressed to the following institutions and people without whom this
research would not have been possible: Melbourne Business School, Griffith University
Gold Coast, University of Technology (UTS), Sydney, RMIT (Royal Melbourne Institute
of Technology), National Australia, Forters, Amcor, WMC, Hill and Knowlton, The
Centre for Corporate Public Affairs, Melbourne, Peter Maund, Sheila OSullivan, John
OSullivan, Sue Braddy, Gal Walker, Geoff Allen.
Abstract:
The Australian social and political environments have broadened the traditional public
affairs function to include specific tools, such as environmental communication,
corporate giving, issues management and community relations. Future trends indicate a
more strategic public affairs focus.
Keywords:
Communications, Public relations, Management, Australia
Type:
General review
Publisher:
MCB UP Ltd

Article
Purpose

Section:
An earlier study focused on the logic prevailing in the various ways corporate communication
departments were structured in corporations across Europe, the USA and some Asian countries
(Tixier, 1993) had a chance to be pursued in Australia[1].
The objective of the research is to assess whether public affairs in Australia is different from what
is normally named corporate communication in Europe, including public relations.
Methodology

Section:
To carry out this research, three main sources were used. The first is a field study using
qualitative interviews with public affairs top executives in many Australian companies based in
Melbourne and Sydney in 1997. The interviews were completed the following year in Brisbane.
Emphasis was given to sectors of industry with a mature function for reasons explained in the
background part of this article. These are mainly mining, petroleum, agrofood, banking,
insurance.
The survey components aimed at bringing out differences of vision among major corporations,
the influence of the head office corporate cultures, different ways in which departments were
organised and how tasks were broken down among the stakeholders within the companies
(general management, all the main departments) as well as outside (agencies, subcontractors).
The second approach was through consulting a resource collection consisting of PR campaigns
submitted to the Public Relations Institute of Australia (PRIA) for the Annual Golden Target
Awards Competition in 1995, 1996 and 1997[2].
Finally, an analysis of the existing recent literature was systematically carried out. Two sources
were of great help. One (Centre for Corporate Public Affairs, 1996) is the abundant literature
from the Centre for Corporate Public Affairs in Melbourne; the other comprises case studies,
regionally based, written for PR students in Australian textbooks (Quarles and Rowlings, 1993).
Background

Section:
A substantial shift has taken place in recent years away from the traditional public affairs function
in Australia. A number of companies have developed functions which are underpinned by a
fundamentally different philosophy. This is the result of the increasing impact of regulation,
social and legal activism, the growth of shareholder activism, the increased intrusiveness of
international and national governments in some key areas of business management. More
generally, this is in response to globalisation of business, the spread of information technologies,
growing bottom line pressure, political and social trends. Companies like RTZCRA[3] (BHPs
key competitor) probably recognized the changing nature of corporate affairs earlier than most,
and so did the banking industry.

With the exception of a few major multinational companies, the title for heads of the function
Australians held generally known as public affairs is likely to be corporate communication or
public relations in most European countries. Although there is a significant government relations
specialisation in major firms, regulatory affairs departments will sit next door, largely
unconnected. In Australia, this has been expressed as a shift in orientation from public relations to
public affairs. This is not suggesting PR skills are redundant; rather, they are one element in a
broadening total function.
The Centre for Corporate Public Affairs in Melbourne has thus come up with a working
definition of public affairs at the end of 1997:
Public affairs is the professional practice within organisations concerned with the analysis and
management of external social and political issues affecting the organisation, encompassing
public policy, government relations, stakeholder and issues management, and strategic
communications, including the media and corporate image ...; ... public affairs may extend to
include investor relations and employee communications. Where these activities are managed
separately or within other functions, then public affairs has an important complementary role.
The public affairs components were to be undertaken more holistically and were composed of:
public policy, government relations, external and internal communications, community relations,
strategic philanthropy (sponsorships/donations), media relations, issues management, and crisis
management. Only some companies in Australia undertake investor relations through their public
affairs departments (Fosters, RTZ); only aspects of the investor relations practise are normally
shared with public affairs (AMP). In the same way, environmental management is also more
frequently performed outside Public Affairs with major exceptions.
Table I records the major public affairs responsibilities performed and where.
The public affairs executive profiles

Section:
The public affairs staff in Australia are a mix of specialists in industryspecific regulation and
more generalist staff with broad regulatory, government and political experience. Others have
sophisticated skills in community relations and consultation. Communications professionals are
also significant contributors to these functions.
When practised at the highest level, the public affairs executive is acknowledged as the accepted
internal authority on the social and political issues affecting the business and contributes to
management strategy and behaviour at all levels of the organisation. The most developed
corporate public affairs functions[4] are headed by increasingly senior and well remunerated
executives, often members of their enterprises executive committee, reporting directly to the
CEO or business unit chief; playing an increased role in strategic planning, managing expanding
budgets, taking on the role of internal strategists and advisers to line managers.
In most major Australian corporations, the new recruits were given a senior management role
(e.g. BHP, Westpac, ANZ, National Australia Bank) while daytoday public relations operations

inside the company remained more or less unchanged. Their background is much more varied
than it used to be. There has been a continual increase in the number of staff with previous line
management experience with a decline in numbers of those with a background in journalism. A
trend towards an increase in the status of the senior public affairs executive was recorded by all
recent surveys.
A growing trend has been to put straightout managers without public relations experience in
charge of PR departments. If a specialist entry into the function does require business training and
management skills, it is also recognised that a general management entry requires an overview of
specialist skills. Broader career options have thus become more available and there is now an
increased likelihood of lateral entry from management.
Some specific Australian public affairs tools

Section:
Environmental issues
Recent surveys (Hancok, 1993) found evidence of a commitment to a rising pride in good
environmental performance and in the leadership that the industry is providing in land
rehabilitation. The mineral industry, the forests products industry, the petroleum industry have
become conscious of the impact their operations have on the environment and work with local
communities to resolve areas of concern.
Controversial industries in Australia have mining operations to close as such is the case of sand
mining and timber getting on Fraser Island since it became recognised for its World Heritage
importance. In a similar manner, a team of UN heritage experts demanded the closure of the
Jabiluka uranium mine within the Kakadu National Park in November 1998. The risk is either to
threaten the regions thriving tourism industry or to do damage to Australias reputation as a good
citizen on the world international stage.
As Jerry Ellis, exBHP chairman, declared: More than in any other way, the community judges
the mineral industry by its environmental performance[5]. Similar to the chemical industrys
Responsible Care Program, the code he launched for environmental management commits its
signatories to what is called sustainable development or managing sustainably.
Managing sustainably helps get projects off the ground and builds mutual understanding. Putting
the message across is also helped by the use of more emotive media replacing issues advocacy in
public communications campaigns.
Sponsorship
Some organisations in Australia administer their corporate contributions through charitable trusts.
A disadvantage to this may be a loss of control over the distribution of contributions and a lack of
recognition for the companys support for the community. In 1997, Philanthropy Australia[6]
estimated that its members gave over $300 million each year to various projects across Australia.
Among its corporate members are Westpac, Freehill Hollingdale and Page, Rio Tinto, the Body
Shop, ANZ Trustees and WMC. In 1996, the distribution of expenditure on public benefit

activities was as follows (Australian Council for the Arts, 1996): 39 percent for community
welfare, 33 percent for sport, 23 percent for education and 5 percent for the arts.
The increase of amounts directed to education and community welfare indicated that those who
have redirected their corporate giving strategies understood that business is part of not separate
from the community. Both CRA and Westpac, for example, have adopted such approaches.
Contributions are made in the community where money is made and the partnership philosophy
provides for longterm relationships between the partners through programmes that work for both
(Ahern, 1998). This view is also sustained by Jeremy Moon, professor of political science at the
University of Western Australia, in an article in The Australian encouraging business social
responsibility (Moon, 1997).
However, Australian companies report a reluctance on the part of employees to become involved
in corporate giving. They must, therefore, avoid any impression of pressure on employees to
participate[7]. This attitude may change as a more strategic approach to the practice is adopted
and as corporate giving is increasingly perceived as an important public affairs strategic tool.
Issues management
In the 1980s it became apparent to corporate executives that business could have a lasting impact
on public policy only if it understood the societal expectations and took these into account in
lobbying politicians and bureaucrats. Issues management is an activity of public affairs that is
helping corporations cope more effectively with broad social issues. Given its strategic focus on
understanding the external environment and through planning how best the company can work
within and manage the constraints posed by externalities, issues management[8] is the pinnacle of
public affairs activities. It is designed to avoid crisis management through anticipatory
planning and proactive measures before the crisis occurs.
The role of issues management is to identify social, political and regulatory challenges as well as
opportunities, map their profile, stakeholders and path and develop strategies for their
management. An issues slate contains major corporate issues or issues affecting corporate
reputation.
In Australia, many companies dont have crisis management plans in place. They hardly
implement a planning process in anticipation of a crisis or anticipate whether an issue is likely to
explode on them. Having the understanding of an issue understood by the media or by potentially
adversarial groups through dialogue will help reduce the chances of conflict and avoid the crisis
they dont want to manage.
Best prepared Australian companies set up task forces to deal with big issues that necessarily
cross organisational boundaries. Companies such as Telstra in telecommunications and Fosters
Brewing Group have definite issues management profiles and models with a structured issues
management process.
Although studies (e.g. More, 1995) show that only about onethird of Australian organisations
have some type of crisis management planning in place and are not only unprepared but also

unaware of the positive dimensions of a crisis, some understand how to manage crises better in a
prospective rather than reactive style. The latter emphasise issues management as an integral part
of strategic management (Smith and Sipika, 1993).
Community relations
For public affairs, strategy planning begins with the premise that no corporation can hope to
succeed and prosper long term in a hostile climate or without the assistance and alignment of
those individuals and constituencies it relies on for support. In Australia, even the most sensible
and desirable policies are unlikely to be implemented unless supported by public opinion. A high
priority is therefore to inform the public. Business leaders have to be willing to open up their
companys operations to involve the community in their decision making and implement a
dialogue that improves understanding of managerial constraints. This is sometimes referred to as
community awareness.
Identification of those communities, understanding their needs and how to communicate with
them over the life of a project are indeed critical issues. This is not exactly about being a good
corporate citizen ...; it is recognising that it is now communities rather than governments in
Australia where the public policy agenda is formed and changed and which dictate a companys
license to operate. Actively managed community relations are no longer an option but have
become a requirement for every project.
As one NGO[9] officer stated at a meeting with WMC[10] executives in early 1997, community
participation does not mean talking to people until they agree with you. Companies, therefore,
need to be prepared to change and collective commitment is required.
Business social responsibility

Section:
The belief that community issues are related to achieving the business vision is now gaining
ground among top management. Wellknown top executives such as Paul Andersons predecessor
(BHP CEO) have focused attention on the fact that successful management must include a vision
of factors beyond the traditional commercial scope. Sir Arvi Parbo (WMC, Alcoa, Zurich
Australian) is often quoted as declaring: we fail badly if we havent managed the social and
political issues, underlying the need for a corporation to meet both its commercial and social
responsibilities.
Ron Burke, general manager of group corporate relations at the National calls this responsibility
the social license to operate. This is the trust the community has in their ability to operate
ethically and in a socially responsible manner. If you lose your social license, then your business
license to operate also suffers .... Publications by Putnam (1993), Jacoby (1974) and Fukuyama
(1996) have at different times sparked interest and debate on the subject.
Future trends

Section:

Among major changes in the public affairs function, one can notice the increasing impact of new
technologies, increasing line management interaction, the development and internationalisation of
issues identification. Some activities are likely to increase, such as internal communications and
environmental management, while traditional public affairs activities such as philanthropy and
corporate advertising are expected to retain the same status.
The most noticeable shift in Australian public affairs is probably the shift beyond a focus on
image and communications towards more radical new relationships in the broader social and
political environment (Allen, 1995). This trend evolved from the public relations/communication
component of the task, moving from a British model towards a more American model of public
affairs practice and, as many professionals would like to think, towards a more strategic focus.
Notes

Section:
1. 1.
1 On the occasion of a sabbatical leave at the invitation of Melbourne Business School (in
1997) and Griffith University, Gold Coast (in 1998).
2. 2.
2 The Institute of Australia has donated these entries to the University of Technology,
Sydney where they are available for loan as resource material for public relations
educators, students and practitioners. The collection is updated to include each years
Golden Target Awards finalists.
3. 3.
3 CRA: Conzinc Rio Tinto of Australia.
4. 4.
4 1996 Corporate Public Affairs survey.
5. 5.
5 At the launch of the Code for Environmental Management at Parliament House,
Canberra, 10 December 1996. He was then president of the Minerals Council.
6. 6.
6 Philanthropy Australia is the new name for The Australian Association of Philanthropy,
formed in 1975; it is an umbrella body whose members are private and corporate trusts
and foundations.

7. 7.
7 This situation strangely contrasts with what happens in the USA.
8. 8.
8 Issues management is a phrase coined by Howard Chase, a consultant in the USA,
some 20 years ago. It is the tying together of social and political intelligence, external
action program and internal communications lecture by Professor James Post, The
Fourth Centre for Corporate Public Affairs Institute, 12 July 1994.
9. 9.
9 NGO: nongovernment organisation.
10. 10.
10 WMC: Western Mining Corporation.

References
1.
Ahern, M. (1998), Philanthropy Love of Humankind, The Way Forwad for Australians,
PRIA National Convention, Queensland Community Foundation, Gold Coast, October.
2.
Allen, G. (1995), Around the World in Public Affairs, Australian Centre for Corporate
Public Affairs, Vol. 5 No. 3, p. 5.
3.
Australia Council for the Arts (1996), Corporate support for the Arts 1996, Survey of
Expenditure and Attitudes, Research Report, Australian Council for the Arts.
4.
Centre for Corporate Public Affairs (1996), Report of Australia and New Zealand
Corporate Public Affairs Survey, Centre for Corporate Public Affairs, Melbourne.
5.
Fukuyama, F. (1996), Trust the Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity, Free Press,
New York, NY.
6.

Hancok, P. (1993), Sustaining Mineral Wealth: Australians and Their Environment,


Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies, ANV.
7.
Jacoby, N. (1974), The corporation as social activist, in Prakash Sethi, S. (Ed.), The
Unstable Ground: Corporate Social Policy in a Dynamic Society, Melville Publishing
Company, p. 237.
8.
Moon, J. (1997), Community roles promise benefits to corporations, The Australian, 10
June, p. 12.
9.
More, E. (1995), Crisis management and communication in Australian organisations,
Australian Journal of Communication, Vol. 22 No. 1. [Infotrieve]
10.
Putnam, R. (1993), The prosperous community, social capital and public life, The
American Prospect, Vol. 13, Spring, pp. 3542.
11.
Quarles, J. and Rowlings, B. (1993), Practising Public Relations: A Case Study Approach,
Longman, Cheshire.
12.
Smith, D. and Sipika, C. (1993), Back from the brink post crisis management, Long
Range Planning, Vol. 26 No. 1, pp. 2838. [CrossRef], [ISI] [Infotrieve]
13.
Tixier, M. (1993), Approaches to the communication function in France and abroad,
IPRA Review, Vol. 16 No. 2, pp. 2230. [Infotrieve]
Further reading
1.
Dowling, G.R. (1994), Corporate Reputations: Strategies for Developing the Corporate
Brand, Longman Professional Publishing, Melbourne.
2.
Goodwin, D.R. and Kloot, L. (1996), Strategic communication, budgetary role
ambiguity, and budgetary response attitude in local government, Financial
Accountability & Management, Vol. 12 No. 3, August. [CrossRef] [Infotrieve]
3.
Irwin, H. (1996), Communicating with Asia: Understanding People and Customs, Allen &
Unwin, St Leonards, NSW.
4.

Joyce, M. et al. (1995), A Stitch in Time: Repairing the Social Fabric, papers presented to
an IPA Conference, Melbourne, March 1995, Institute of Public Affairs, West Perth, WA.
5.
Motion, J., Leitch, S. (1996), A discursive perspective from New Zealand: another world
view, Public Relations Review, Vol. 22 No. 3, Autumn, pp. 297309. [CrossRef], [ISI]
[Infotrieve]
6.
PRIA National Convention (1998), Communication in a Complex World: Handbook and
Proceedings, 79 October, Queensland.
7.
Putnam, R. (1995), Bowling alone: Americas declining social capital, Journal of
Democracy, Vol. 6 No. 1, January, pp. 658. [CrossRef] [Infotrieve]
8.
Putnam, R. (1996), The strange disappearance of civic America, The American
Prospect, Vol. 24, Winter.
9.
Turnbull, N (1996), The Millennium Edge: Prospering with Generation MM, Allen &
Unwin.
10.
Tymson, C. (1996) rev. ed., Sherman B. (1987), The New Australian and New Zealand
Public Relations Manual, Millennium Books, Tandem Press.
11.
Walker, G. (1995), Golden Target Awards Collection, Public Relations Institute of
Australia.