Public Affairs in Central & Eastern Europe: an industry inching towards maturity

4 years, 4 months ago

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Although CEE is incredibly diverse, it is nevertheless possible to make some general observations about public affairs trends across the region. By Ben Petter.



I arrived in Prague five years ago having spent most of my career up to that point as a public affairs consultant in London. I brought with me, I hope, a decent understanding of how policy is developed in London and Brussels. Since then, working with clients across Central & Eastern Europe (CEE), I have developed a perspective on the state of the public affairs industry across this region – and how, slowly but surely, it is changing.
 
It’s dangerous to generalise...but I’m going to...
 
I should say up front – before my colleagues start getting upset – that the CEE ‘region’ is a diverse mix of countries, each with its own language, history and culture. Transparency International’s recent ‘Lobbying in Europe’ report emphasises this point within the context of the public affairs industry. The report ranked 19 European countries on ‘transparency’, ‘integrity’ and ‘equality of access’, and the results will have surprised a lot of people. The top two countries, Slovenia and Lithuania, were both part of the former Communist bloc. Poland and the Czech Republic were ranked ahead of Germany and France. However, Hungary was the lowest ranking country overall, so the picture is not uniform by any means. 
 
It’s therefore dangerous to generalise, but I do believe that it’s possible to identify some themes about the public affairs sector across the largest ‘new’ member states (Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Romania and Bulgaria) and it feels legitimate to highlight them.
 
If I had to sum it up in a sentence, I would describe the industry in CEE as one that is inching, slowly but steadily, towards full maturity. Let me explain why, and then briefly outline what I think it means for public affairs practitioners working in the region.
 
A young industry
 
It is always worth remembering that it is only 25 years since the region emerged from the Communist period and began the negotiations that ultimately led to EU accession. That feels like a long time – and, in the context of the European project, it’s a very long time – but it is actually only half a career. Given how young the industry is in CEE then, it would be surprising if it had already reached full maturity, but there are three specific factors that have acted as a drag on more rapid progress:
 
First, the link in many people’s minds between public affairs and corruption. This has undoubtedly held the industry back and terminology hasn’t helped. "Public affairs" is a poorly defined term everywhere, but it’s still better than "lobbying" which is, in many CEE countries, synonymous with corruption. A lot of companies and communications agencies still refuse to touch public affairs because of the perceived reputational risk. The public affairs consultancy sector is, as a result, under-developed (in contrast to PR, where the market is saturated with agencies). That’s good for our business. It’s less good for the professionalisation of the industry as a whole.
 
The fragmented nature of the region is a second factor. When I first arrived in Prague, I was struck by how few dedicated in-house public affairs roles there seemed to be within international companies. Many businesses had clearly taken the view that none of the markets in CEE were big or important enough (with the exception, maybe, of Poland) to justify the cost of hiring specialists in-house.
 
Finally, my experience of trade associations in CEE has been very patchy. While there are some excellent trade associations in the region, many lack the experience and/or resources to represent their members properly with government. The quality of advocacy can therefore be extremely poor, which, in turn, leads to scepticism from policy-makers about public affairs work as a whole, complicating life for all of us. 
 
The good news: things are changing
 
The economic crisis has been good for the public affairs industry in CEE. There is no question that more public affairs people have been hired in-house in the last few years. This is partly about companies responding to increased regulatory threats (something we explored in a report published at the end of last year), but it is also a reflection of business impact. In CEE, as everywhere else, the pressure to demonstrate impact on the bottom-line has never been greater. Public affairs has held up well under this scrutiny – much better than other communications functions. 
 
The same factors have also sharpened up some of the trade associations across the region. Companies expect to see real business impact if they are to continue to invest their time and money, and trade associations have had to respond.
 
What does this mean for public affairs practitioners in CEE?
 
Based on my experience, there are three main implications of the fact that public affairs is still a maturing industry for people doing the job day-to-day in CEE:
 
First, it’s a mistake to over-complicate things. There is a lot of discussion in our industry, for example, about the impact of social media on policy-making, something Richard Jukes, Grayling’s Managing Director of UK Public Affairs,discussed in his IPRA Thought Leadership essay earlier this year. Talking to colleagues in Brussels, it’s clear that Twitter has changed the rules when it comes to lobbying at EU level too. 
 
In CEE? We’re not there yet. Politicians, of course, use social media for their own external communications, but, in most countries, it has limited value as a tool of influence. 
 
Romania, interestingly, is an exception. Facebook was pivotal to Klaus Iohannis’ victory in the recent presidential election (the campaign made him the most ‘liked’ politician in the whole of Europe) and it is now a standard component of public affairs campaigns in Romania. Other CEE countries may go the same way in the near future but, for now, a traditional approach focused on face-to-face engagement still works best. 
 
Second, when I first arrived in the region I was struck by the focus on ‘contacts’. I used to think it was ‘old school’ public affairs – which it often was – but it was also a realistic reflection of the fact that decision-making is not fully transparent. Without a decent network of contacts, it’s very difficult to know what’s going on, let alone influence it. 
 
This has a big impact on consultancies because it is not possible, as was common when I worked in London, to delegate monitoring work to the most junior people in the team, who would do most of it from behind their desks. This isn’t possible to the same extent in CEE, so it requires a much greater degree of senior input.
 
Finally, most important of all, I’ve learned that none of the above changes things that much! To illustrate the point, Grayling has just published an infographic on how legislation is adopted across CEE:
 
 
This shows that, while there are some interesting differences between countries, the procedure consists of the same main stages, with many points of similarity in the details. These are processes that will look very familiar to public affairs people everywhere. 
 
The core principles of public affairs work hold true in CEE
 
The infographic also emphasises that the phase prior to parliamentary scrutiny, the least transparent stage since negotiations behind closed doors dominate the process, is the most important in terms of shaping decision-making. The moral of the story? To influence the debate, you need to know what’s going on and get in early – advice that every public affairs consultant across the world would give their clients. 
 
My last boss before I left London had advised Gordon Brown during his time as Prime Minister, and I will let him sum it up. While in Downing Street, he had seen dozens of businesses try to get close to government. He boiled down the lessons he had learned in this way: "Anyone can change government policy. It doesn’t matter if you are the largest corporation or the tiniest SME. All you need is a strong enough story."
 
That, I’m happy to say, is as true in CEE as it was in the UK.
 
 
Author’s Details
Ben Petter is Head of Grayling’s Central Practice Team in Central & Eastern Europe, one of 170 public relations and public affairs consultants the firm has across the region. He has 15 years’ experience in public affairs.
 
 

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The Author

Ben Petter

Ben Petter is Head of Grayling’s Central Practice Team in Central & Eastern Europe, one of 170 public relations and public affairs consultants the firm has across the region. He has 15 years’ experience in public affairs.

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