Moving the Perception Dial: A New Perspective on Public Affairs

The economic integration of Brazil, Russia, India, and China is changing public affairs and demanding that we be more risk-aware, transparent, and global, says Donough Foley 

In a region of such diversity and complexity as Asia, we need a new perspective on the discipline of corporate public affairs. We are not pursuing pure reputation management or seeking to import strategies that have worked elsewhere. We have gone beyond corporate diplomacy, simple relationship building, and a one-size-fits-all approach.

What we are doing here is building the foundations for future business growth through public affairs and government relations. Our key skill is our ability to develop, maintain, and evolve relationships across multiple markets through localized strategies.

Guided by Business Goals

First and foremost, it is crucial that we understand that public affairs is a function of business. Senior managers in our field need to develop business goals that align with the corporate vision. And they need to encourage their people to think about their work as part of the business as a whole. This is a real challenge. But without this business mindset, we are in danger of simply maintaining relationships for the sake of it.

We can look at it this way: governments across South East Asia are in the business of government, part of which is the building of a strong economy. As a company, supporting this aim provides value and is a sound business strategy. It is also a solid basis for a productive relationship.

When you treat public affairs as a business process in this way, you are more likely to succeed. And when you do succeed through this process, you build deeper and more lasting relationships than can be achieved simply by pursuing the relationship model.

So there has to be a business element in everything we do, from pressing for a policy change to supporting a bid through the tendering process.

Built on a Regional Platform

Guided by our business goals, we also need to look at public affairs in Asia from the outside in. In this complex environment, we succeed by developing cross-regional diplomatic platforms rather than simply by engaging in in-country relationship-building.

Once this platform is in place, we can then go in to talk to government on an ongoing basis. At Philips, we do this in an open forum that allows us to examine how such dialogue helps us develop our business in a given market. At the same time, we are also looking to rise above the clutter by being smart in finding new ways to talk to people.

For example, working through embassies, the ASEAN Secretariat, or international funding organizations are all effective strategies, but these processes require intensive management.

Several years ago, Philips took 200 of our top global executives to India. Our aim was to actually show them what an emerging market looks and feels like. They worked in a hospital for a day and explored rural life. These leaders came away with strong views about what Philips could do in these environments in India. But they also gained real insight into the complexity and diversity of Asia, where developed and developing markets sit side by side.

This is not to suggest that a company setting up in the region should attempt to execute a multi-market strategy from the get-go. If you are new to Asia, I suggest you select a single market to build from. Make sure it is an easy market, one with an open and transparent government, where it is relatively straightforward to do business. And then do whatever you need to do to get to know this market.

Localized for Success

Each and every market here in Asia has its own ways of working; its own mechanics of government. However, it is sometimes difficult for those coming in from outside, particularly from a multinational environment with well-developed strength in public affairs, to appreciate the need for localisation in government relations.

At the heart of the issue is the need to understand what the parameters are in any given market and how the mechanics of government work. It may not be easy to find, or read, the rulebook, but it must always be followed. No company can ignore the relevant rules of engagement. This applies as much to a Chinese enterprise moving into the US as to a European firm moving to Asia.

At all times, however, we must also remain aware that we are here to support the growth of our business and that means being cautious about admonitions that things cannot be done in a certain way in specific markets.

Our aim as public affairs practitioners is to move the perception dial and in doing so deliver given goals for the business.

If my team throw their hands in the air and tell me something can’t be done, I refer them back to the goal and ask them to tell me how we should work to achieve it. Then I can manage the process to best meet the aims of the business and accommodate local needs and conditions.

This helps to circumvent the “not invented here” syndrome. People will always be wary of change, which is essentially an issue about skill sets and comfort zones. We have to be mindful of the fact that in Europe and North America the public affairs and government relations platforms are far more developed than they are in Asia Pacific. So we have to help our people here do what they need to do in their local market to support the business.

The rewards may be more about business survival today than business success.

China has always been a challenge for international businesses lured by the huge potential of its vast market. It still is a difficult place to do business. But it is now far easier for those who understand the rules and appreciate China’s national aims: China wants to build a sustainable economy as it develops its healthcare system, its physical and business infrastructure, and its abilities in environmental stewardship.

For companies with a business plan that aligns with these goals, companies that are patient and make the right moves, success in China is possible. And as is the case elsewhere in Asia today, it is public affairs strategies and skills that are most useful in orchestrating these moves and thus building this success.

Donough Foley is Vice President, Regional Corporate Communications Asia Pacific, at Philips Electronics Hong Kong Ltd

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