Source: Dröge & van Drimmelen, Netherlands

Original Text has been edited

Diplomacy is changing

The trends in global public affairs should be seen in conjunction with a world that is increasingly operating internationally. A similar trend can be observed in diplomacy - another discipline that has undergone major changes over the years. Traditionally, diplomacy was a tool that countries used in order to maintain contact and report on things happening elsewhere. This approach no longer suffices. The added value that is provided today lies in the way that things are interpreted based on observations and information. In addition, issues increasingly have a transnational component, partly due to technological developments. For instance, the climate-related challenges being faced are an issue whose solution will only be found through transnational cooperation.

Borders are becoming more diffuse

The world is globalizing and the public domain is changing rapidly. Issues in the fields of privacy, security, cyber security and sustainability do not magically disappear at the border but require decisions to be made higher up. For this reason, global public affairs professionals seek to resolve positioning issues at a level that transcends borders. The online world is an outstanding example of a place where physical distance is rapidly becoming meaningless. In a world where people spend a significant part of the day on social media, borders will increasingly grow diffuse.

The professionalisation of global public affairs

Companies do not have to be multinationals in the traditional sense of the word to operate worldwide in countries with differing cultures and legal systems. Digitization in particular has enabled many companies over a short period of time to operate globally. Global public affairs is the profession within the field of public affairs which has undergone the greatest changes. Global public affairs professionals have become the experts who figure out how their organizations have to position their brands and who draw up those strategies that transcend regional or national borders. Against this backdrop, the discipline of public affairs is changing rapidly. There are three major trends , which are important to the development of global public affairs.

Trend No 1: A more complex playing field in which more parties have joined the debate

Diplomats are now engaged in multilateral partnerships on topics such as the multilateral Sustainable Development Goals. Not only has the discipline become multilateral, but the business community and civil society have joined in the proceedings as well. The debate on sustainability that has taken place in the last ten years has fundamentally changed the way that companies think. The Sustainable Development Goals formulated by the United Nations provide direction to collaboration on global challenges. The current inclusion of more parties in the talks has made the playing field more complex.

Trend No 2: Innovation requires regulation

New regulations are necessary within fields in which innovative companies operate. With regard to the Internet and technology in particular, a global debate is ongoing about subjects such as privacy and data protection. These discussions often result in existing laws being amended. Combating legal fragmentation is the main reason why tech companies, whose very nature lends itself to thinking across borders, engage in global public affairs. As a further complication, tech companies are now dealing with the ‘techlash’. A positive attitude towards innovation is no longer a given. The  public is getting more involved in the debate on the negative aspects of technology. The rapid technological developments of the past ten years have permanently changed the playing field. Social media are now ubiquitous and constitute a powerful global force.

Trend No 3: Public affairs as a reputation management tool

Public affairs is being increasingly used as a reputation management tool. Traditionally, public affairs mainly concern legislation and contact with politicians. But today global public affairs is increasingly involved in the public perception of a company and the way in which said company contributes to society. These days, news spreads across the world in the blink of an eye. A local complaint filed about a company may turn into a global news story within a single day. Moreover, damage to a company’s image is often followed by restrictive amendments to the laws.



Every company instructs its global public affairs professionals in its own way. A company’s global public affairs team should reflect the company’s organizational culture as closely as possible. The team should be organized in a way that mimics the organization of the company and should employ the same methods used by the company, regardless of whether the company’s organization is flat or hierarchical. However, just because a company’s public affairs team is subject to hierarchical (vertical) management does not make the public affairs team a global public affairs team. This matter also requires horizontal communication with stakeholders in an international setting.

Vertical management

The manner in which multinational corporations set up their public affairs teams is mostly a throwback to the traditional structure of the diplomatic corps. Headquarters provide top-down management to regional branches, while there may sometimes be a regional head office in between these two levels. For their part, the regional branches report their findings bottom-up and implement the strategy determined by headquarters. They communicate by means of regularly scheduled conference calls or through annual reports of the latest developments. The head office safeguards the unity of the organization by establishing the broad outlines of the organizational strategy, with the regional or local branches (which are familiar with the local political system) implementing these broad outlines through location-specific strategies. Due to cultural differences, there is a need to determine the appropriate implementation of the ‘marching orders’.

Horizontal communication

Global public affairs exceeds the sum total of national teams. Due to globalization and several influential international organizations, international brand positioning and transnational strategy-making are crucial. This approach requires not only management of national teams but also a direct strategy on how to deal with institutions such as the EU or the UN. Nowadays, these institutions discuss matters not only with diplomats but also with the business community and civil society.

Regional hubs with hired local consultants

Not all companies have local public affairs professionals. Companies increasingly hire local public affairs consultants. The head office devises a rough strategy and asks the regional headquarters to implement it, but the regional branches do not have this strategy implemented by public affairs officers of their own. They instead hire consultants who are familiar with local conventions and methods to implement as well as provide feedback on the strategy. A benefit of this approach is that the company hires professionals who have a good general idea of what is going on in local society. The implementation of the strategy is not impeded by the dominant corporate culture, and the strategy can be rolled out to new areas relatively easily.


While all companies have different strategies, the head office draws up an annual plan, to be translated by local teams into a local agenda. The global public affairs teams help the local or regional teams to implement the strategy. The strategy is not a blueprint for the local branches. The idea behind public affairs is to have an impact on the local level, even when the public affairs team is managed by a company’s international headquarters. Every organization goes about this matter in a different way, but it is important for companies to know whether things that work in one particular market will also work in another market. For this reason, companies must always seek to come up with location-specific strategies. It is crucial that companies have a good understanding of local values, enabling them to respond better to the current affairs and needs of a particular region or country.

Using values as a lobbying tool

A company’s or organization’s reputation is increasingly transnational. Thanks to new communication tools, news spreads fast and international reputation management is essential. As a result, companies are now focusing more and more on the values held by the societies in which they operate. Even organizations which like to emphasize their lack of a political dimension seek to reflect the company’s ‘core values’. To this end, companies  use embassies (social investment collaborations), and there is a clear interrelation between public affairs and diplomacy. This trend in public affairs is evidence that the discipline of public affairs is now fully fledged. This trend makes an active contribution to society from a reactive position through a proactive attitude. Companies tend not to establish a global public affairs department until there is some kind of political opposition requiring a response. Once the department has been established, companies are able to act as proactive contributors to the public debate. The third step in the process is the company giving back to the society in which it is operating. It goes without saying that it takes time to build networks and gain experience.


Several tools used in public affairs can also be used in global public affairs. The most frequently mentioned tools the professionals have at their disposal are taking part in the public debate, forming alliances and sharing knowledge with policymakers.

Using alliances

The growing importance of international alliances is something that can be observed to a great extent in both diplomacy and global public affairs. In recent years, the international political stage has changed a great deal, partly due to increasing populism and conservative nationalism. These increasingly popular sentiments are inciting countries to operate in a more individualistic manner, which reduces the strength of the international community as a whole. This development is also affecting the formation of alliances. It is increasingly hard for countries to enter into alliances with other countries. Conversely, in response to this trend, companies are now more likely to enter into alliances with each other based on mutual interests. Companies use larger umbrella organizations such as Business Europe and Ecommerce Europe for their international lobbying activities. Diplomats are also reaching the conclusion that it is increasingly important to enter into alliances. These days, more partners are joining the negotiations: civil society, governmental organizations and companies.

Sharing knowledge with policymakers

International platforms are regarded as good places to share knowledge and establish new contacts. Events such as the Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES) and the World Economic Forum (WEF) are crucial to international efforts.

Use of social media

New communication tools have significantly increased the speed with which communications travel abroad. The rate at which news travels can be observed both in diplomacy and in public affairs. First, current affairs unfolding in one country can be followed in other countries shortly afterwards. Second, there has been a ‘democratization of information’. In democratic countries with a great deal of freedom, information can be accessed by nearly everyone and can typically be consulted free of charge. Third, it has become considerably easier to communicate with politicians and government officials directly, while everyone can now place issues on the agenda – unlike the old days, when only politicians and journalists were able to do so.

The internationalization of news

The fact that news stories travel across borders so rapidly has caused a different dynamic to arise within public affairs. When stories from one country make the news in other countries, it means that reputation management for companies and organizations does not end at the country’s borders. It is vital that companies and organizations do not suffer reputational damage in any country, particularly since a negative image is often followed by restrictive legislation. In this regard, companies wear different hats when implementing their social media strategies. Basically, companies have two duties when it comes to social media: promoting and creating news on the one hand and ‘quenching fires’ when negative stories are being spread by the opposition on the other. Since communication is now so fast and direct, the contrast between these two duties has sharpened. All companies and organizations active in public affairs as well as in diplomacy must consider whether a response is necessary and, if so, what this response should be. Public Affairs on social media can blow up to such an extent that it is a chore to determine what will have an impact, what this impact is likely to be and how long it will last. For each issue that blows up online, companies must decide whether or not they will respond to it. This makes the interpretation of news much more challenging and much more unpredictable.’

The democratization of information

Since so many people now have access to (online) news stories, the way in which companies look at things has changed as well. It works two ways. On the one hand, it has become easier to reach large groups of people with a particular message; on the other hand, many people are concerned about the increase in disinformation and fake news. Both can have a tremendous impact. Diplomats are suggesting that people are better and more quickly informed because they are better able to share news. However, public affairs professionals believe that stories are less about content than they used to be and that it is more important that people like a company. Companies used to invest in proper research. Lately, they have become more reluctant to do so, because there is considerable distrust of privately funded research, and research may actually be counterproductive.

Direct communication and agenda-setting

People now have access to much more direct means of communication. People used to practice diplomacy and public affairs behind the scenes, unseen by the people. These days, they do so through WhatsApp. As a result, communication with politicians and government officials has not only become more direct but also more informal. This ability to communicate directly has resulted in people being able to contact politicians more easily and promote important interests themselves. Citizen lobbyism is a clearly discernible trend in public affairs, involving groups of well-organized people working together to achieve a goal. These groups may or may not be supported by public affairs professionals. Because of this direct communication, there is a growing demand for transparent as well as open communication by companies and organizations.


International issues require international solutions The discipline of global public affairs has become more professional and more important in the last ten years. One reason is due to globalization, as companies have begun to operate on a more international scale. Another reason is that the challenges faced transcend borders. The public affairs discipline has evolved to reflect that trend. It is not simply the sum of the parts that make up national public affairs, but rather a discipline in its own right with a different dynamic. Companies and civil society have joined diplomats at the negotiating table, which has made the international playing field more complex.

What can diplomats and public affairs professionals learn from each other?

A good lobbyist needs to be a gifted diplomat, while a good diplomat must be a competent lobbyist. Due to geopolitical shifts, the rules of the international community are shifting as well. These changes are affecting the way in which diplomats do their jobs. As a discipline that is younger and less subject to established conventions, public affairs has an easier time adapting to these developments. Even companies that do not operate internationally now use public affairs professionals in order to gain an understanding of globalization as well as the interplay between economics and politics. There are clear differences in the way that the two disciplines are funded, however. All countries have enough resources to be represented by diplomats all over the world. Companies cannot afford to have their own public affairs officers in every country. However, by hiring local public affairs consultants, they can have their ‘boots on the ground’. Such companies are embedded in local culture, are familiar with the local political system and have local networks.

Global corporate social responsibility

Companies that operate globally have global corporate social responsibility as well. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals play an important part in strategy making in many organizations.  These goals provide international challenges with a practical dimension and help companies determine on which matters to focus in their attempt to make a positive contribution to society. In order to raise these standards and principles to the next level, alliances are being formed between diplomats, lobbyists and companies that have a global corporate social responsibility strategy.


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