3 Steps to Help Public Affairs Pros Build Influence in their Companies

Recently, the Public Affairs Council in Washington conducted its annual Grassroots Conference where public affairs professionals from some of the largest companies and trade associations in America gathered to discuss best practices in issues advocacy. This is a field dedicated to encouraging participation in the political or public policy development processes, usually among employees or natural constituencies, in order to achieve policy results that support the mission of the organization leading the effort.

Perhaps the most important insight gained at this conference of public affairs professionals was the common challenges they face in instilling change within their organizations. Most of these conference participants were young, bright professionals eager to make a mark in their field, yet they lack the authority to effect change in how their company or organization communicates with, connects with, or engages its employees and allies – or so they think.

Falling prey to the notion that you have no influence or authority in your organization can be a self-fulfilled prophecy. Sure, there are senior executives who have control issues that are insurmountable, but that barrier aside, a common mistake among professionals is to believe they have no power, and thus they will have no power.

Based on the discussions among today’s top public affairs professionals at the 2013 Grassroots Conference, especially in large corporations, therefore, here below are the top three leadership steps to grow in your influence within your organization:

Embrace the tools of the trade or be less relevant

Too often it is easy to allow a colleague or a vendor to command the details of a resource or application.

One discussion with a director of political affairs for a large nonprofit organization demonstrated her difficulty in getting her leadership to agree on a common mission for their issues advocacy program. Upon inspecting her background further, I realized that this young professional does not even have her own LinkedIn or Twitter accounts. How does she expect her organization to accept innovative new tools and approaches if she does not embrace such things herself?

In fact, many professionals who whiled away countless hours of their university life on Facebook still do not understand the vast business applications of these online social media platforms. This can have devastating consequences, as noted in this excerpt from The New York Times about the 2012 presidential campaign:

Romney’s senior strategist, Stuart Stevens, may well be remembered by historians, as one House Republican senior staff member put it to me, “as the last guy to run a presidential campaign who never tweeted.” (“It was raised many times with him,” a senior Romney official told me, “and he was very categorical about not wanting to and not thinking it was worth it.”)

Therefore, take the time to learn the tools of our trade and you may well be perceived as the in-house expert at your organization on the use and the application of such resources that can help fuel success.

Demonstrate value by always being able to answer the question “Why?”

Have you ever been in a meeting where the most basic questions about why resources were being expended on a program or initiative were asked and the professional responsible for those expenditures had a poor response, no response, or responded by stating “Well, John told me to do it”?

At no time should you ever be caught without an answer to the question “Why?”

Know why you are doing things. Understand deeply how it helps fulfill the mission of your organization or your program. Be ready to produce data or reasoning for why a program is valuable and how it is making a difference; and if it is not, then be the first to prove it and offer solutions.

If you are demonstrating the value of a social media program, for instance, don’t show “follows” and “likes” in a vacuum, but show a growth trajectory over the course of time, and reflect how this will support your broader mission or visibility goals.

No one is indispensable, the old saying goes – and it is largely true. Yet if you become the expert at demonstrating real value of your resources and areas of responsibility, you will grow more valuable to your business or organization, as will your programs.

Get over the things you can’t control and you will succeed

Getting buy-in from senior executives can be tough, especially when mission creep sets in because your boss’ boss has to weigh-in on your program and he or she is not available to meet until a month from Tuesday.

One can wither under such controlling circumstances, but the best way to march on is ultimately about control – what you can and what you can’t.

You must fully assess what you have command and control over and place your focus for progress and success there.  The more you command things, the more that issues over which you have no control will be isolated and highlighted. Ultimately, the slow decision making of others that represents a barrier to your success will become more obvious.

You may be amazed at the response from your leadership when they see your full dedication and commitment to the areas of responsibility that you command. If you are truly on your game, you may even see senior executives more motivated to act because of your success in driving an agenda and producing results, based on the things within your control.


The Public Affairs Council Grassroots Conference was a veritable feast of ideas and concepts about how to rally herds of supporters to act and advocate for good policies that support the mission of the respective businesses and organizations.

The real challenge to success waits back at the office for many of the public affairs professionals who participated. Once they overcome their own perceptions that they lack influence in their businesses and organizations with some key leadership steps, they are likelier to return to the next conference with greater stature and a record of success.

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