Policy and People – building communication capabilities

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Veronica caught up with Dr Sarah Bowman, to discuss why mastering public affairs and deepening internal communication capabilities are becoming increasingly important for communication professionals.  Sarah is a Senior Lecturer at Northumbria University and a tutor at nesma for the CIPR Specialist Diplomas in Internal Communications and Public Affairs.

Why is public affairs so important?

You cannot ignore the fact that individuals and organisations are affected by the policies devised and implemented by government. It is essential for democracy and all of us that we contribute to this process – we have a responsibility to try and shape the debate to get the best policy outcomes we can. We need to be on top of issues that affect our organisations and communities and get our voices heard at a national, regional, or local level.

Effective policy needs different views and perspectives. At its heart, public affairs is about managing relationships with those who decide how we live, work, and play, and for many organisations, these decisions can make or break them.

But surely you can’t always get your way?

No, you can’t, but all views must get aired and the wider public interest explored. Through dialogue and discussion, hopefully, consensus and coalitions can emerge. After all, as the character Hamilton says in the musical of the same name, ‘you need to be in the room where it happens’ if you want to influence decisions! If your views are not accepted, organisations and communities will still be better prepared to deal with any changes and mitigate negative impacts as best they can.

Is the policy landscape changing?

It certainly is – recent years have seen policy and politics become more uncertain, complex, fragmented, and global. Communications has always involved managing matters requiring an understanding of the issues life cycle, building evidence, and gathering data, crafting arguments, and creating coalitions, which is becoming more intense and critical. There is

also, a growing need to embed behavioural economics and theories of change as the governance landscape becomes more sophisticated and interconnected. It is a fascinating time!

How does this relate to internal communications?

You cannot talk to policymakers and external stakeholders unless you feel confident that the organisation is robust operationally – it is not just what you say but what you do that makes arguments stack up. Your people are critical to delivering this. Internally, communication is fundamental to building employee belonging, commitment and understanding. An open and more effective organisational culture can be developed by nurturing employee voices, contributing to organisational success. It also means your employees are right behind you and can help make the case to those who take decisions.

So, internal communication is about engagement?

Yes, it is. When devising an internal communication strategy, people often forget why they are doing it. It is not about constantly sending information out to employees (thank you email!) – it is about genuine dialogue and two-way communications when employee voices

are heard and valued. This leads to engagement with employees identifying with the organisations they work for, helping it thrive – and most importantly, don’t forget this type of culture makes it a far more rewarding place to work.

Has the pandemic put a spotlight on this?

In some ways, it has. The move to home and now hybrid working has made internal communication a necessity. The recognition that many employees are key workers has enhanced an understanding of the vital role people play and how organisational reputation hinges on this. At the same time, government decision making has been brought into sharper focus during the pandemic, as has the importance of getting different viewpoints on the table – take the debates around furlough and the hospitality sector, for example. And on the flip side, we have seen lousy communication resulting in poor treatment of employees and lack of decision making transparency, which is why more voices, greater openness, and I would argue the spirit of ‘convivial’ disagreement is vital. After all, we all can’t agree on everything! The pandemic has shown that for internal communications and public affairs to be done well, it is about behaving ethically, respecting, and balancing passion and compassion.

What can you do to deepen skills in these areas?

A few years ago, the CIPR introduced a Specialist Diploma in Public Affairs (Level 7) and, for Internal Communications, a Certificate (Level 5) and a Diploma (Level 7), which recognises the importance placed on these areas and the extensive knowledge base that underpins both. All the qualifications are open to those who work in communications and PR, including marketers who often have responsibility for these areas. Interestingly, internal communications is sometimes known as internal branding and public affairs managing non-market audiences, so there is a cross over. These are shorter six-month qualifications that work to deepen skills in these specific areas to build policy and people capabilities – twin pillars that I would argue are critical for all organisations moving forward.

nesma is an accredited study centre providing all these Chartered Institute of Public Relations courses as well as flexible and professional learning opportunities in marketing, digital marketing and communication skills for individuals and organisations.