Why Public Affairs and Corporate Communications Can No Longer be Siloed

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Elizabeth Northrup recently joined Washington, D.C.-based public affairs firm ROKK Solutions as its first chief client officer. Most recently, Northrup served as Executive Vice President of Corporate Affairs at BCW Global.

We spoke with Northrup about the extension of public affairs throughout communications and the importance of understanding bipartisan audiences in both internal and external responses to societal issues.

PRNEWS: What is the biggest challenge for a PR professional, when it comes to balancing responses to societal issues?

Elizabeth Northrup, chief client officer, ROKK Solutions

Elizabeth Northrup: It is important to be transparent, and not to feel like that you're behind the news cycle. We want to be prepared, as soon as something happens, to get the client side of the story [out to the public].

One of the things that we're seeing is, for so long, public affairs and corporate communications [were siloed]. And that has changed…you can't just think about it from a Washington standpoint of what's happening with regulation and legislation. You've got to think about it from a consumer-corporate standpoint…what that means is that you can't just think, "I'm going to go and talk about this in D.C.” [These issues are] something that [corporations need to be] thinking about more broadly.

PRNEWS: It seems like everyone does public affairs these days.

Northrup: They do. But I also think that the public affairs firms in D.C. can't just be public affairs-focused…they're not just working with the government affairs offices in D.C. They're talking to the C-suite…you've got to be able to go beyond the Beltway and think about [these issues] in broader terms than just a policy arena.

PRNEWS: And it’s just as important, if not more so, to get internal and employee communications right. If you don't make a statement, then your employees will, as we saw last year with Disney.

Northrup: They're part of the audience…your employees are often consumers. And so you can't ignore that, because they're talking to friends, family, and others, as well as caring very much who they're working for.

PRNEWS: What if you are an organization who is trying to expand your reach, to reach Gen Z, but you don’t want to turn your backs on other demographics who might not have the same political and societal preferences and opinions?

Northrup: …There's so much data that exists on where different generations are getting their information from. And so I think that if you're working with a client, and this is one of those things clients should be asking too, is, who do you want to reach? And what's the best way to reach them? And it doesn't mean your message is changing, necessarily, but how you're getting to those audiences does matter.

PRNEWS: Okay, but whether or not an organization comes out and makes a statement, there's going to be another segment of the population who disagrees. So when you're counseling clients, how do you approach that topic?

Northrup:…You have to really look at where your opposition is living. Where are they putting out their messages? And are they speaking into their own echo chambers?

It's not that you don't want to respond to differing points of view, but you don't want to necessarily get into a big argument with someone else, and give the issue more life than it would normally get.

… I don't think that you have to change what you're saying…it's the same as talking to a staffer on the Hill or a member of Congress as it is your next door neighbor or your consumer. You find the elements that are of interest, and why it's important to those groups that may be a little bit different. But the foundational message doesn't change.

PRNEWS: Recently there was a lot of confusion around Walgreens’ message about access to abortion pills. One of the things that your colleague Lindsay [Singleton] had mentioned is that it's worse to have to backtrack and clarify. So at what point is it better to  remain silent? That doesn’t always seem to be the right answer, either.

Northrup: That gets back to the question, How do you know when to go out? I mean, it is a tightrope that you have to walk and even when you're talking to an internal audience, like employees, you have to treat it as if it is going to become public because once you talk to one person, it's going to go wider, whether you're disseminating it or not, certainly with social media.

So if you're ready to go out and talk, I think that's where you've got to be looking at it through a crisis lens: what's the worst-case scenario of how this can happen so that you're prepared to address those in-real-time questions to try to make sure that the information is being disseminated and received in the right way.

PRNEWS: So all communications these days has to be considered crisis communications.

Northrup: That's one of the things that we always say. If you can prepare beforehand and think about [your communications] with the possibility of what happens if a crisis hits, then hopefully, you never need to use that. But it's much easier if you have that all prepared ahead of time.

PRNEWS: Every quarter, we've been asking our readers whether they’ve held crisis preparation exercises, or if they plan to. In the first quarter, 52% said just they're not going to or they haven't yet. How often should people be doing crisis prep with the news changing every couple of hours?

Northrup: For any client, company, trade association, there's got to be one or two issues that have the potential to turn into something really big. And they should have those plans already in place... Now, things change, obviously. So something that’s in place in the beginning of the year…you should [revisit], I would say, a couple times a year, to make sure your media lists are up to date. Ask, do we still have the same spokespeople? Because changes happen within an organization.

Where it's most important is that you want to make sure that your plan is up to date and ready. You don't necessarily have to be running that crisis simulation on a monthly or quarterly basis. But I would say that on an annual basis you should make sure that all of the right people are in place and that everyone knows what they're supposed to do.