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Breaking into Public Affairs – Don’t Rely on Luck Alone

by Steve Okun

This article originally appeared in Public Affairs Asia.

“It’s not going to happen unless you are extremely lucky – and I would not want to rely upon luck alone.” That’s my standard answer whenever someone asks how to break into an in-house government relations and public policy role in Asia Pacific. Generally, I’m very supportive when offering career advice, especially to young professionals. But, I also need to be realistic. These intellectually challenging, rewarding, and rare positions are hard to come by.

As the global bull market in politics shows no signs of abating, businesses recognize the need to have public affairs professionals to protect and expand their license to operate by engaging with an ever-growing number of stakeholders. More and more, companies creating or increasing in-house Public Affairs staff.

But this rising demand nowhere near matches the increasing desire for these still very limited positions.

Breaking into the public affairs industry without experience isn’t easy. Frankly, it’s close to impossible. Companies don’t have the resources to bring on a rookie and “coach them up,” especially in this part of the world.

Some companies will hire a mix of internal and external to manage government relations. Others may identify an internal candidate with the raw skills and hire a consultant to guide them. Others bring onboard an external hire who knows GR/PA but have them do an immersion into the company for six months before starting their job.

Bottom line: companies require external hires to have PA experience.

Given my quarter-century nearly in this industry, with more than half of that based in Singapore leading in-house functions, I am often asked for advice on how to break into corporate public affairs.

Most experienced practitioners share my belief – without direct experience with the legislative or regulatory process, one cannot navigate the often-opaque practices one faces in dealing with governments.

In a nutshell, absent a great deal of luck, you’re not going to get hired unless you’ve operated at the frontline.

But how do you go about getting this crucial experience?

Education alone won’t secure the confidence of a would-be employer. However, not everyone can, or should, work in government. The next most obvious entry point is through a public affairs consultancy. But, as with their in-house counterparts, most of these roles go to those with experience, especially in the more boutique shops in Asia.

To get the needed experience, novices charting a PA career need to think laterally and strategically about roles that expose one to the complex matrix that exists between corporations, governments, stakeholders.

The Stepping Stones

There are many stepping stones into the world of corporate public affairs. These come in different shapes and sizes, some with a salary and some without. As painful as it is to hear, targeting big name corporates off the bat will be a waste of time. Rather, explore organisations engaged in the public affairs process.

International development organisations such as the World Bank, UNDP, and the ADB play a key role in public policy. These organizations will provide the experience of working with governments, and can in interacting with companies, if you seek it out. Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) are another option. Often, they are a third party engaged in the dialogue between MNCs and government. Some even have direct partnerships with companies and/or governments.

In Asia Pacific, industry and trade associations – such as Food Industry Asia, CASBAA, CAPEC and the Asian Trade Centre – are a great place to see first-hand how the public and private sectors work together. And, more importantly, how they sometimes can be hamstrung by the lack of consensus among their members. Trade associations provide the opportunity to learn about companies key PA issues. And, they offer you a chance to network with corporates for future roles.

“I also need to be realistic. These intellectually challenging, rewarding, and rare positions are hard to come by”

Chambers of commerce and business groups are also big players in the PA and GR process and you should target these, too. Many of today’s top-level industry figures earned their stripes working for organisations such as The US-ASEAN Business Council, AmChams or EuroChams.

I know many who have made the jump from associations and chambers to the in-house world.

Often over-looked is working for embassies. Key positions are often held by “local hires,” and this experience can give one direct engagement representing companies with critical public affairs issues. If you make an effort to reach out to the business community from this platform, you will quickly learn what companies care about.

Listen, Learn and Live “The Four Ps”

Once you’ve found a role within one of these organisations, the secret to success is not to try to move too quickly. Spend time learning, building up your network, and gaining experience. Watch closely how problems are solved and conflicts are avoided. Then, take ownership of an issue and deliver a quantifiable win.

Successful public affairs practitioners must know the four Ps. For any given issue, one needs to know:

  • Public Interest: How is if defined by that government?

  • Policy: What are the arguments as to why an action is in the public interest?

  • Process: What is the route to government action?

  • Politics: Which stakeholders are on any given side of an issue?

Unless you know the mechanics of public affairs and have the experience in leading an effort for a policy or regulatory situation, you will not be trusted by a company to take the lead for them. Too many people looking for those same jobs have that experience and have often made the investment to get it.

Personal Networks

Once you feel ready to target an in-house role, bear in mind that your first lucky break most likely comes via someone you’re already engaged with. So, it’s important that right from the outset you start building your own personal network – the often over-looked Fifth P.

Spend time with in-house PA practitioners, go to networking nights and attend industry conferences and events. Get to know the small group of dedicated recruiters who operate in our industry.

Make sure that the networks you develop aren’t just focussed on prospective employers. The value you offer to as a PA professional lies precisely in having networks beyond the private sector.

Spend time developing relationships with your equivalents in government, NGOs, the media, and regulatory and trade bodies. Get to know the bright young advisors who surround ministers and ambassadors in Asia. As you rise through the ranks, so will they.

While many PA professionals will move from sector-to-sector — in my case from government to aviation and express delivery to private equity — show the capability to become a sector expert in a relatively short period to time. Companies may not be able to train you in public affairs, but they can train you on their business.

If you’re an expatriate you’ll need to understand Asia – and be immersed in the region. Our industry has undergone significant localisation in recent years, and the experience of Capitol Hill or the backrooms of Brussels won’t cut it here (like it did for me).

“It’s not going to happen unless you are extremely lucky is the same answer I give to anyone living in the US asking me how to get a job in Asia without first moving here (that is another column for another day), but if you are already here, you are well positioned to jump to a stepping stone.

Following these guidelines won’t guarantee you a corporate public affairs role. But those who have done it will be able to rely upon more than luck in their job search.


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