Hire Local Thinkers, Not Just Locals (23 May 2021)

by Steve Okun

This article originally appeared in Public Affairs Asia.


“All politics is local,” said former US Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, providing an interesting lens to consider how a successful public affairs practitioner should think and operate.


Often, I get calls from search firms and corporates alike asking me for a recommendation for a regional public affairs role. (I have been in Asia a long time.)


My response never changes – I recommend the person who I know is best at public affairs.

Occasionally, that advice gets followed.


About six years, ago, at a PublicAffairsAsia event in Hong Kong, I engaged in a debate about whether a former non-US government official could be a successful public affairs practitioner in Washington.


My debate opponent, a former USG official like myself, believed non-US government officials could not succeed in a US-based public affairs role because of the necessity for a specific knowledge base to influence the US system.


I countered that great PA practitioners understand how to read any local landscape; one needs not be a local to do that.


True, for a country-level role, hiring the person with the best connections, the deepest relationships, or the most guanxi, may often be the right call.


However, it’s a mistake to allow location to drive the hiring for corporate affairs at a regional or global level. A US company looking only for an American to head their global PA or believes that only an Asian can head their Asian PA regional team misses out on the great majority of candidates – and maybe the best candidate – who could be successful in those roles.


People with a natural aptitude for public affairs understand O’Neill’s statement intrinsically. A person who succeeds in public affairs in one market can also do so in Washington, Beijing, New Delhi, Singapore, or anywhere. This is something I will explore in an Advance training session coming soon in Singapore.


This aptitude means a person can understand the mindset and work mechanisms of any local administrative system and its people, as well as being capable of winning their trust – regardless of the origin of their passport.


So, how can a non-local think locally and understand the landscape to be successful?

It’s not enough to be a natural.


Asian professionals hoping to move into regional or global PA leadership roles require mentoring and training. The practice of public affairs needs a framework applicable to every situation.

“A person who succeeds in public affairs in one market can also do so in Washington, Beijing, New Delhi, Singapore, or anywhere”

Early in my career, UPS global public affairs provided me a great training ground. My then-mentor provided a framework for the team and taught us how to dig deep into a local situation, build local relationships, and look beyond daily headlines. The head of global public affairs at KKR added to my knowledge. Over my 15 years of PA experience in Asia, I’ve adapted the original framework to become the Five Ps of Public Affairs:

– Policy

– Public Interest

– Process

– Politics, and, increasingly,

– Partnership

Let’s look at each in turn.


Policy: Get Your Hands Dirty

Volatility defines today’s policy landscape globally. From Brexit and Make America Great Again in the West to Made in China 2025 and Make in India in the East, new policies emerge faster than ever – often in a very local context.


While one must know which policy their company favors, that is just the beginning. Knowing the policy in-depth and having the ability to articulate it in a way that evolves with today’s environment is a must.


PA practitioners get their hands dirty by diving into the policy behind proposals, knowing the arguments from both sides.


Public Interest: The Person Across the Table Defines It

You must present the policy in a way that explains why implementing this policy advances the public interest from the government official’s perspective.


Every government — from multi-party democracies to one-party states — engages its citizens before making major policy decisions in some fashion. In other words, all governments put their people first. (President Trump is right on that point.) Knowing how each government determines how best to do that is the job of the public affairs practitioner. (Discussing whether President Trump understands this point is for another time.)


Sure, policymakers may see merit in your company and industry gaining an advantage. But, what will it do to their local constituents? What does it do to local competition? Does it impinge on the creation of national champions? And what will it do from a broader social and environmental context?


You must always be able to articulate why your policy proposal – or your objection to one – meets the public interest test from the official’s perspective.


Process: Everywhere is Opaque

A detailed understanding of the local decision-making process allows you to lobby the right audience at the right time.


Many regulatory and legislative bodies in Asia appear closed, opaque, and unduly complex. This is no different than the US and the EU in many respects.


When it comes to process, you need to know what you don’t know.


Without question, your local opposition knows the political process inside out and will work to block your move.


Here, you will need to have experts who fully understand the mechanics of the institutions and the steps they go through to frame laws and regulations.


Retaining experts who understand your objectives and can leverage their “local-ness” on your behalf gives you a greater chance of success.


Politics: The Large and Small Ps

Politics can derail even the most coherently argued policy position that meets the local public interest test.


Take into consideration the “large P” of politics — the political parties and politicians — and the equally importantly “small p” of politics — the local political landscape.


Find out to which political party a government official belongs and understand it’s landscape. In countries with only one dominant political party, the politics are often just as fierce as within a two-party system.


Who is in? Who is out? Who is favoured? Are certain officials seeking leadership roles within their party? Meaning, are they trying to gain favour within their party?


You will need to look far beyond newspapers and policy briefs. Talk to experts and understand the trends and events in local markets. Peel back the rhetoric and really look at what issues are driving the decision-making process.


In markets where domestic business and political elites can be very closely aligned, this can be even more challenging, especially when ensuring compliance with local and global standards is mission critical.


Who will oppose you when you advocate a position? Where can you build alliances?

Only after you map the stakeholder landscape can you connect the dots, understand who supports whom, and develop a battle plan.


Partnerships: Shared Interest Speaks Loudly

The practice of public affairs extends beyond government engagement. It includes workers and customers, shareholders, banks, NGOs, and the media.


A company’s contribution to society impresses stakeholders, whether the company is a local buddy or a foreign stranger. Shared interest speaks loudly.


Developing local partners who will willingly articulate your position across the entire stakeholder map often provides the greatest impact. Building these partnerships can be accomplished regardless of one’s nationality if it is based on shared interest.


Constructing the Right PA Team

The best corporate affairs teams are the ones comprised of the greatest practitioners executing the right system.


People on the team are chosen based on PA acumen, not nationality.


They are given a public affairs framework in which they can operate.


And, the top management recognizes that thinking locally and applying the 5 Ps is not enough. In today’s rapidly evolving political and regulatory landscape, they retain external partners when needed to navigate local markets.


Bottom line, the best blueprint for a world-class Public Affairs function is hiring the right practitioner who can pick up the local knowledge and implement and leverage the five Ps with the right internal and external support.


A person who succeeds in public affairs in one market can also do so in Washington, Beijing, New Delhi, Singapore, or anywhere.