What will 2016 mean for public affairs?

The geopolitical instability in parts of the world and the global threat of terrorism force governments to take drastic security measures.

These often lead to temporary or definitive restrictions of rights that took many years to be granted in the first place, such as the freedom of movement and the privacy of communications. The tension between upholding fundamental rights of citizens and the measures required to ensure the security of people will no doubt fuel policy debates further in 2016 both at national and international level. Careful and precise crisis communication and convincing explanations of the reasons for exceptional measures by political leaders and security authorities will be more than ever expected by the public. Private companies in many sectors, such as air and rail transport and tourism or telecommunications and social media, will need to address security concerns of their customers to an even greater extent than they do today.

The Paris agreement on Climate Change reached in December 2015 engages all countries of the world to deliver an action plan to ensure that the global temperature doesn’t rise with more than 2° Celsius.

Work on these plans will start in 2016 in order to have them agreed upon by 2018 and implemented as of 2020. Measures to reduce CO2 emissions will affect all sectors and activities that consume energy. The energy sector itself, with the call to strongly reduce fossil fuel combustion, will obviously face challenges to overhaul its production habits. But practically all sectors of industrial activity have to rethink their CO2 emission situation or face regulatory restrictions and costs. Transportation, construction, chemicals, steel, automobile, agriculture (cattle), cement, data centers, household appliances, lightning, and many more economic activities will need to think about how to achieve the climate goals. This ambitious climate plan of the United Nations will generate plenty of public affairs activity, from companies communicating efforts made and results achieved to mitigating the possible unintended consequences of specific approaches envisaged by governments. Advocating appropriate measures to contribute to the climate plans can also create vast new growth perspectives and markets for new technologies. No economic player can stand on the side lines when the plans to limit the temperature from rising are conceived and put into place.

Disruptive companies that have grown tremendously in the previous years (like Uber, AirBnB and many others) remained hitherto mostly unregulated, but are facing increasingly the challenge of non-adapted or adverse regulation.

The “old” sectors and some public authorities are hitting back by enforcing existing regulation upon the disruptors or by inventing new rules to protect consumers and ensure competition based on a regulatory level playing ground. As the internet of things develops ever further and connectivity based on omnipresent technology enhances opportunities for new business models, such as sharing or putting to use idle assets, unexpected disruptive newcomers on the market are keeping CEOs of established companies awake at night. Ensuring a proper regulatory environment for newcomers to develop and for consumer and other rights to be upheld is a key public affairs challenge for 2016.

After an extremely difficult 2015 for the EU, with the Greek crisis, the refugee influx, the military and humanitarian drama’s on the EU’s border, the difficult relations with Russia and the slow economic growth, 2016 looks even more challenging.

The EU faces existential questions: who wishes to be a Member and who doesn’t? The British referendum on EU membership will dominate many policy discussions and colour political communications. And it fuels anti-EU sentiments in some continental EU Member States, where extreme left and extreme right parties, united in anti-trade, anti-free movement, nationalistic and protectionist rhetoric, channel the anti-establishment feelings of many voters. The intense public debate calls for masterful public affairs and political communications, not only from politicians, but from all organizations, companies and institutions that share concern about the future of cross-border problem solving for peace and prosperity in Europe.

Global M&A and investment activity is likely to grow further in 2016, so economic forecasts tell us.

Mergers between US and European companies are creating new giants. Chinese investors look over the borders for opportunities across the globe. The regulatory and anti-trust approval of transactions involving global companies or foreign investors demand the creation of a supportive context for public acceptance. Public affairs advisors will have an ever more important role in the transaction teams of the companies involved to enhance the swift blessing of complex mergers in multiple jurisdictions. Internal and external communication strategies accompanying once-in-a-lifetime deals are quintessential for the success of the operation. But even more important is the systematic stakeholder engagement with very precise legally, economically and politically underpinned messages to get the deal through.

As the public demands ever more transparency and integrity of decision makers in public life, in companies and in organizations, and scrutinizes their behavior permanently and instantly, notably through social media and by making consumer choices, the value of one’s reputation is more precious than ever.

Preserving, defending, or, if required, repairing the reputation of countries, companies, organizations and individuals, demands more long term public affairs strategies to be executed. Paradoxically, the market for public affairs advisory services has evolved towards shorter term projects instead of sustained campaigns in recent years. Credibility and effectiveness of decision makers will be based on transparency and integrity in 2016, or will disappear. Wise public affairs counsel in the coming year is even more essential, therefore.

Thomas Tindemans, CEO, H+K Strategies Brussels

I thought President Obama’s remarks last night sounded more like an inaugural address than a State of the Union: full of lofty ideas, but few policy goals. For better or for worse, the president seems to have thrown in the towel in trying to achieve any new major legislative victories during his final year in office.

The speech showcased familiar Obama themes: America’s strength and bright future, the need for more gun control, economic inequality and education. But I worry that he squandered the chance to propose any new solutions to some of our nation’s most pressing problems.

He gave no new details on efforts to defeat terrorism or ISIS. He did not speak to the need to improve America’s standing in the world. In fact, I do not recall one real initiative on which he spent more that a few sentences throughout the entirety of his remarks.

The Republican in me suspects the president has his mind set on how to fashion the Obama legacy in his remaining months in office: Do it completely out of the White House with executive orders and administrative actions, not by working through Congress. A quick look back in history generally would prove me right.

And you wonder why so many Americans are frustrated with our government and have turned to anti-Washington outsiders as potential leaders for our country.

It will be interesting to see what the GOP-led Congress will set as its agenda for 2016 under the new speaker. I am hopeful congressional Republicans will find new ways to provide opportunities for all to achieve the American Dream like so many generations before them. Governor Nikki Haley did a stellar job in illustrating how a small-government, private sector-led agenda can do exactly that.

We need our economy to improve and we need to ensure that our middle-class workforce can thrive – advancing in both wages and career growth. Republicans also need to consider how it can work with the president on combating terrorism and ISIS. We need to muster the force and global consensus necessary to defeat those who want to harm Westerners because of religious extremism.

As the presidential candidates – Democrat and Republican – continue their campaigns, I have renewed excitement and, candidly, some apprehension about America’s future. That comes with the season. Last night, I was hoping the president would share a bolder plan, but knowing the volatile mix of politics and this Congress as I do, he took the different more realistic path. Guess I can’t blame him.

James Fuller is the Public Affairs Practice Leader for Hill+Knowlton Strategies. He served as Executive Director for the Bush-Cheney 2000 campaign and held numerous positions in President George W. Bush’s administration

For an opposite viewpoint, we asked H+K Strategies, Washington, D.C.'s General Manager, Ellen Moran for her perspective. Read SOTU: A Refreshing Departure and Welcome Return.

Image credit:hafakot / Shutterstock.com

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