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Journal of Public Affairs Volume 12 Number 1 pp 74 76 (2012) Published online 22 July 2011 in Wiley Online Library ( DOI: 10.1002/pa.406

Practitioner Paper

A decade of change and continuity in public affairs

Michael Burrell 1,2 *

1 European Centre for Public Affairs , Middlesex, UK 2 Edelman , London UK

Ten years ago, I wrote a short book called Lobbying and the Media: Working with Politicians and Journalists . It was primarily a practical, hands on guide to how to conduct public affairs effectively and with integrity, but it did contain one speculative chapter on the impact of the internet on lobbying. I reread that recently, with some trepidation and a fair degree of con dence that I would have got it all wrong. So I was pleasantly surprised to nd that the predictions had held up reasonably well. That is one of the themes that I would like to revisit in this 10th anniversary volume of the Journal of Public Affairs . Others are the extent to which public affairs now encompasses a much broader set of stakeholders beyond politicians and of cials, how the distinction between public and corporate affairs is beginning to break down, the impact of the global nancial crisis on the profession and some reections on the globalisation of public affairs. So change, yes, but also a large measure of continuity: plus ca change, plus cest la meme chose . Let us start with the impact of the internet on lobbying (although a decade ago, I found it so mysterious, that I called it the impact of the Internet on lobbying). One of the quotes from that era that I like, because it reminds me of how quickly things have changed, is from Bill Clinton, who noted, as he left the presidency in 2001 when I came into of ce the World Wide Web had only 50 sites . It is precisely the speed of technological change that makes judgements in this area so tentative. Even then, there were essentially two camps those who believed that the internet had changed everything and those who said it would change nothing. In the rst camp, for example, was Clinton s ex spin doctor, Dick Morris, who wrote a book in 1999 entitled How Big Money Lobbyists and the Media

*Correspondence to: Michael Burrell, European Centre for Public Affairs, Kingston Lane, Uxbridge, Middlesex, UB8 3PH, UK. Email:

are Losing Their Inuence and the Internet is Giving Power Back to the People . His contention was that, thanks to the internet, Jeffersons utopian vision of a democracy based on town meetings and direct popular participation is about to become a reality. Closer to the opposite camp were Kevin Hill and John Hughes, whose 1998 research based book, Cyberpolitics: Citizen Activism in the Age of the Internet , concluded that The net itself will not be a historical light switch that turns on some fundamentally new age of political participation and grassroots democracy . I planted myself rmly in the middle ground, while speculating that it might well be the case that the internet s impact on lobbying would grow as more and more people had access to it. Today, I would say that is what happened and would cite as supporting evidence the research that Edelman has conducted among politicians assistants on Capitol Hill and in Brussels, London, Paris and Berlin. That research shows just how far these, often young, but frequently important players now rely on online sources for policy information especially news- paper websites and also (and increasingly) Face- book, Twitter and blogs. The ascendancy of Google and other search engines has assisted in a democratisation of infor- mation ow that has made that part of a lobbyists job redundant or, more accurately, placed a greater emphasis on the extent to which public affairs people can add value by analysing information and offering insights into its signi cance and advice on what to do about it. In 2011, the Arab Spring has reminded us all not only of the potency of the internet (and mobile phones) as a mobilising force but also the extent to which effecting change still depends, as much or more, on what people do on the street and how governing elites react to that. The debate will continue about the extent to which public affairs has moved away from a pyramid of in uence approach, focussed on ministers and

Change and continuity in public affairs 75

senior ofcials and more towards a Web of crossin uence, encompassing a much broader set of

India or the Middle East. Only a handful of practitioners can claim anything approaching global

stakeholders. Few would argue that the movement has been in that direction, which makes the lobbyists job more complex and more interesting. Equally, I think, most would still accept that face to face meetings with the people who have the power to change things continue to be of crucial importance

experience, even though their job title may be head of global public affairs, which makes them heavily and necessarily dependent on local expertise in less familiar markets. It is not only the institutional framework that will vary greatly from country to country but also


remains, in some cases, decisive.

the cultural framework may be very different, not

It is this involvement of a wide range of stakeholders in political decision making that has

least when it comes to challenging issues around corruption, transparency and censorship. Yet, with


some to question whether the distinction

the immediacy of global communication today, it is

between public affairs and corporate affairs is becoming increasingly arti cial. Public affairs people

impossible to proceed on the basis that a com- panys locally nuanced approach in one market

might say they are in the business of securing and maintaining a licence to operate for their companies

will go unnoticed in others. So, getting the balance right between local sensitivity and global


clients, which gives them a very speci c focus. A

consistency is vital but far from easy and will be

corporate affairs person might talk more of a general goal of securing and maintaining corporate reputa- tion, which will have political bene ts, as well as

one of the major challenges for the profession over the coming decade. Another aspect of globalisation that preoccupies


ts across a wider range of audiences, enhan-

those with global responsibilities is the extent to


the possibility that some of those audiences may

which it makes sense to focus their efforts on

in turn support the company s political goals. At the very least, there is certainly a considerable overlap between the two practices. It is impossible to reect on changes in public

international organisations. In Europe, for example, few would question the need to pay attention to the European Union, but many would be less certain about less developed regional unions, associations

affairs in the last decade without touching on the impact of the global nancial crisis in the latter part of the decade. In the earlier years, resources devoted to public affairs were growing across the sector as a whole, that is, in house, trade association and consultancy. For a while, the crisis brought that growth to a shuddering halt and led, in some cases, to cutbacks. More recently, growth may have resumed, but the crisis and the recession that followed forced practitioners to pay more attention to cost bene t analysis and to seeking, however imperfectly, to measure the impact of their activity on the bottom lines of their companies, consultancies

and organisations in other parts of the world. Then there are the big global organisations the G20, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Health Organization, the Food and Agricul- ture Organization, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (the list and the acronyms are endless) and, if they are important, should the public affairs practitioner focus on the secretariat at the centre or on the national govern- ments back home, who generally make up the membership? Given resource limitat ions, no public affairs practitioner can do everything, so all are forced to


clients in order to demonstrate that they do

make choices, but which ones?

provide value for money. Longer term economic and political trends that continue to impact the profession include the phenomenon of globalisation and the relative decline of the USA and Europe in the face of increasing competition from the rest of the world,

Perhaps Tom Spencer, former Member of the European Parliament and founder of the European Centre for Public Affairs, had part of the answer when he wrote that working in public affairs is like farming on the ank of a volcano. It pays to keep your eyes on the horizon for signs of trouble, but

especially Asia. The last decade has seen a striking, if uneven, growth in the profession across the Asia

which horizon, Tom, and what kinds of trouble? He will have much fun over the coming decade as he


c region, all faithfully recorded in recent years

seeks to forge a global public affairs network that

by Public Affairs Asia . For now, the profession in the

will attempt to answer just these kinds of important

region is a mix of western and local practitioners,

and dif cult practical questions.


it will be interesting to observe whether that

Meanwhile, as the rest of us toil in the elds,


will change over the coming decade.

pausing occasionally to scan the horizon, we can take

The globalisation of public affairs is a trend that poses huge challenges for multinational companies who must now interact with governments whose expectations of business and whose own ways of operating vary hugely. Approaches that are familiar, appropriate and effective in North America and Europe may be far from suitable in Russia, China,

some comfort from eternal verities based on the fact that, whenever and wherever we are working, we are all dealing with human beings, so there will continue to be some simple rules that apply universally. That is what I argued, at least, in my book on lobbying a decade ago. Today, as I look at what I wrote then, I continue to see 21 rules t for the


M. Burrell

21st century, even if two of my favourites were crafted by Shakespeare—‘ there is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the ood, leads on to fortune , that is, choose your moment and

This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man , that is, always tell the truth.

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