It’s time to put the public back in ‘public’ affairs. Too often, targeted public affairs strategies are designed to pinpoint an individual decision-maker, government official, or other influencer. While this ‘surgical strike’ approach to key stakeholders can sometimes work in very specific cases, a narrow focus often yields limited results.

Whether you’re talking about a government introducing a new policy or a company announcing a new project, the greatest indicator of probable success is broad public support. Unless or until you can demonstrate that the public accepts or, better yet, approves any new initiative, the chances that it will actually come to light will be low.

The past decade has offered countless examples of worthwhile endeavours, launched by either businesses or governments, that were dead on arrival in the face of public opposition.  Thanks to social media, it has never been easier for people, groups, and communities to mount aggressive campaigns to sink even the best ideas.

Fortunately, these and other technological innovations can be used to engage the public and build a foundation of trust and goodwill. In fact, any company or government who ignores the general public before unveiling any new initiative does so at their peril. Given the potential consequences and costs involved, it’s gross negligence.

There was a time when the term ‘public affairs’ was synonymous with ‘government relations’, but that time has passed. Government relations can be an invaluable part of a public affairs strategy, but it will seldom suffice on its own. As its name suggests, a successful public affairs strategy needs to connect with the general public.

Public affairs strategies must be based on thorough research about public attitudes and opinions.  That research must inform the development of content and an audience engagement approach that will connect with the public on their terms. The impact must be constantly measured to ensure the plan’s overall objectives are being met.

For any organization, in business or in government, the public should be the primary target of any external communications efforts. After all, that’s why we use the terms public affairs, public relations, public engagement, and, even, publicity. When we focus on individuals instead of the public, we miss the forest for the trees.

Rob Mariani is Senior Vice President with Hill+Knowlton Strategies Canada, and General Manager of the H+K Office in Ottawa, Ontario

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