"It is important to find the right balance between making cuts and retaining what is essential," one PA consultant told colleagues attending the eighth annual conference of the European Centre for Public Affairs (ECPA). He also stressed the need to "overcome the desire to defend past choices" and look to the future.
Warning that "no-one should feel comfortable," the consultant said "sooner or later the crisis will affect everybody, especially if regulations change". Nevertheless, he expressed optimism that the crisis would also bring new opportunities for public affairs, particularly as it develops a political as well as an economic dimension.
PA budgets 'stagnating'
Andrew Hawkins, founder of ComRes, a UK-based polling and research consultancy, presented a survey on the state of public affairs in 2009, which revealed that PA professionals generally expect expenditure on public affairs to stagnate this year.
After strong growth from 2005-2008, PA budgets are expected to return to the near-stagnation of 2004, which was also a European election year, according to the ComRes survey, which polled 155 senior public affairs practitioners from consultancies, in-house corporate firms, trade associations and NGOs in February and March 2009.
ComRes identified more value for money and more innovation as the main ways in which public affairs firms intend to respond to the crisis. Such adaptation may include looking for cheaper ways of doing the same things, like providing project-based rather than retained advice, as well as more innovative responses like increased use of online tools, hosting smaller events and making more public speeches, the survey found.
Echoing these sentiments, a communications consultant hailed the "positive outlook" for public affairs, particularly as government regulation is "back in the frame". "It's about convincing management of the criticality of PA," he declared.
Another public affairs professional also took a positive view, remarking that some companies have reacted to the crisis by communicating better, which in itself creates work for public affairs firms.
Value for money 'key'
In his view, "public affairs practitioners will need to offer more tangible, practical advice on how to manage the crisis," with value for money "the main message" here. "Business doesn't have time for theoretical analysis of the causes [of the downturn]," he warned, stressing the need to "offer managers solutions that they can implement easily".
'Fewer, bigger, better'
"Companies are looking for zero-overhead growth, but where do you make the budget cuts? Trade association fees? Entertainment budgets?" asked another prominent conference attendee.
The PA professional believes the answer lies in focusing on "business-critical issues" and "not more, but better public affairs," identifying a role for PA firms in providing business with a "decision-making support mechanism," particularly as firms are under pressure to make decisions quickly to emerge from the crisis as soon as possible.
The majority of organisations spend over half of their EU public affairs budgets in Brussels, but less than a quarter of this goes on direct lobbying, revealed a recent EurActiv survey (EurActiv 09/03/09).