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COVID-19 and Public Affairs in the ’New Normal’


Expert analysis from Feargal Purcell, Head of Public Affairs, Edelman. This article has been written exclusively for IoD Ireland members.

COVID-19 is a profound and ongoing trauma that is costing lives and causing huge pain to thousands of people. The scale and nature of the challenge it presents is also having a profound effect on how we are getting things done in Ireland. There is clear evidence of common cause across government, business, and broader society. Obstacles are removed as soon as they are encountered. Out of necessity, policy decisions beyond the imaginative scope of even the most radical of thinkers have been taken without compunction and followed by another shortly after.

The ‘New Normal’ for Public Affairs

There is much speculation as to what a ‘new normal’ might look like when the worst effects of this pandemic do eventually pass, and when it comes to public affairs that new normal is probably already here.

Good public affairs is about forming mutually respectful relationships, where all perspectives are heard and understood, so that strong and sustainable public policy and business decisions can be made that benefit the citizens of the state.

The best public affairs strategies are holistic, they are products of a 360-degree societal perspective and they facilitate dialogue between all the key pillars of our democracy: the public, their political representatives, the government, the NGO sector and business. Right now, the COVID-19 challenge demands that a public affairs consensus be arrived at, where all these elements align, so the best and most timely decisions can be made to meet the existential crisis we face. The necessity to protect and inform our citizenry and to insulate our society and economy to the greatest extent possible has seen the emergence of such an alignment.

The Importance of Trust: An update to the Trust Barometer Survey

All good relationships thrive on trust. The relationships between our people, government, business, media and NGOs are complex, and need to have a solid foundation of trust if they are to have any value. Given the sudden and existential nature of the threat posed by COVID-19 and the uncertainty and fear it has produced, Edelman decided to undertake a fresh iteration of our Trust Barometer Survey. It helps to know where the global public are at so that their needs are understood and met.

The findings have no precedent in the 20-year history of Edelman compiling this survey.

If COVID-19 and the response to it have proved anything it is that in a crisis we turn to government and government agencies. We place our trust in them. Only last January, the previous iteration of the Trust Barometer measured Government trust ratings at 54% whereas the most recent survey taken between 15th-23rd April 15 puts it at 65%. That global surge in Government support outstrips that which occurred in the aftermath of 9/11 and the 2008 recession. We are, clearly, very afraid. Right now, people are very willing to sacrifice personal liberties, with 73% of citizens agreeing that movement restrictions are entirely reasonable. That kind of common cause is unusual and probably unsustainable.

On all of the key metrics, containing the pandemic, providing economic relief and support, helping people cope, and reopening the country, governments are by some distance the most trusted of the institutions when compared to business, NGOs, media and even global health authorities. Whether or not these levels of trust remain, is impossible to say, this pandemic has no horizon that we can see. What is certain is that business and Government need to align when it comes to meeting the challenge. This is clearly what the public want to see from business given 86% of those surveyed believe that business must partner with government to shape a better future. The public want less focus by business on changing regulation and more proactive engagement on protecting them and the planet.

Equity and Fairness

Demands for equity and fairness had already reached a moral critical mass in Ireland prior to the last General Election. The narrative of that election foregrounded the issues of housing, health and quality of life. The Edelman Trust Barometer Survey reflects that narrative in its findings and shows that COVID-19 has increased the urgency around issues of fairness. 67% believe that the most vulnerable and least well off are suffering disproportionately during this pandemic. The demand for fairness is global, consistent, and supported by another finding that says 54% of people believe that capitalism, as it is currently functioning, does more harm than good.

COVID-19 is presenting the greatest combined health, social and economic challenge this State has ever had to face. The policy response to that challenge has thus far been emphatic and effective. There was a sense right from the outset of common cause, of the need for every constituent part of the state to align in meeting the challenge of the pandemic, one that will continue for some time to come.

The Role of Public Policy

Public policy is an excellent indicator of the direction of travel a society is headed. The laws we pass, the projects governments invest in with our money, the decisions we are asked to make in referendums, are all threads in our social fabric. These decisions and choices inform our lived reality and the atmosphere that pervades in society. As a people we have for some time been open, tolerant, and outward looking, but our laws did not reflect that. Significant strides have been made in recent years and political leaders and policy makers have found the courage to fall into step with real people in their real lives. Public Affairs has a crucial role to play in that process.

Public affairs activity has long since divested itself of its niche status. Yes, ensuring external perspectives are heard in legislative and regulatory conversations is a critical element of public affairs activity. It should be in any healthy democracy. In framing policy and legislation governments need the perspectives of business, NGOs and independent thinkers or else laws and regulations will not be fit for purpose and people will be sold short. But public affairs has evolved. It is threaded through all communications disciplines and informs everything a business and government does. It is not a legislative “bolt-on” at the periphery of the decision-making process, it is central to deciding what the objective is in the first place, it is a point of departure.

Public affairs is the art (or science) of creating common cause, of ensuring all are heard, of giving clarity to the challenges we face, and of identifying solutions needed to meet those challenges. Done well it creates the kind of momentum and cohesion that solves problems and acts as a hugely positive force in society. The response to COVID-19 is proving that.