Public Affairs – a perspective from Estonia

About the author

Ann is a co-founder of PR Academy. Her special areas of interest are internal communication, change management and project communication. MSc, Dip CAM, MCIPR

How different is public affairs in other countries?

I was delighted to catch up with our CIPR Public Affairs Diploma graduate Mariliis Topp at the recent CIPR graduation event. Mariliis is Head of Communications at AS Tallinna Vesi, a NASDAQ OMX listed Estonian utility company. It was an opportunity to find out more about public affairs practice in her country.

As a member of the senior management team, her role encompasses most communication disciplines such as reputation management, crisis communication, public affairs, media relations, stakeholder engagement, brand and marketing.

I asked her to tell us more about public affairs practice in Estonia. This is what she told me, in her own words:

“It’s important to note two things. Firstly, in Estonia, lobbying as such is not regulated nor, I would even say, completely understood. Secondly, relationship building in Estonia is most probably different as to what it is elsewhere. The population of Estonia is 1.3 million people, which reduces anonymity and in return makes it somewhat more difficult to build relevant professional relationships, as many people tend to know each-other personally. This means that those personal relationships often tend to impact those professional ones, which is unfortunately characteristic to human nature. Most people in the UK would probably not imagine that I could, in theory, easily write to politicians in social media and get a relatively quick response.

I genuinely and perhaps naively agree with academics that the fundamental democratic-ideology driven policy-making process emphasizes the need for regulation to ensure transparency in lobbying activities. Now, while lobbying is relatively regulated in most European countries, according to OECD, the literature and surveys support the concern that a major problem at the heart of the democratic system is the sentiment that the wealthiest are financing political parties in exchange for their particular interests.

As I briefly explained – one of the key game-changers is the size of Estonia when we compare Estonia with the UK. Moreover, one must understand the historical background. Estonia’s independence was restored in 1991, hence I find it important to stress the importance of realization that any communication or public relations disciplines, including lobbying, are relatively young in Estonia. This is also the reason why different communication or public relations disciplines are not so strictly distinctive nor perhaps understood in detail. Which brings me to the fact that lobbying or interest protection is not regulated in Estonia. Nevertheless, according to Transparency International’s annual ranking of the Corruption Perceptions Index Estonia’s score indicates that public sector is not perceived as corrupt. Out of 165 countries and territories, Estonia’s corruption perception index has remained relatively stable within past couple of years and was placed 23rd out of 175 in 2015.

Leaving theory and numbers aside for a second, it’s relatively common in Estonia that people have a very large area of responsibility with little emphasize on hierarchy. We have a strong historical influence, which means that people understand that in order to not only survive, but also to grow, one must always be flexible, innovative and smart. Therefore, it’s fair to say that most Estonians work very hard. I believe my own experience is a good example – in the UK people working in communications are generally mostly focused on specific areas, either media relations, marketing communications, customer communications or public affairs for that matter. In Estonia, it’s more likely that responsibility for all of the above lies on either a small team or 1-2 people. I’ll give you an example. It may seem absurd to some, but I feel most grateful to have experienced political reputational crisis, operational crisis, to have built up full media relations strategy, implementation and contact network, to have been part of investor communications, which allows one to learn a whole other aspect of the business. When we talk about public affairs, or more simply, representing your interest among decision-makers, then this can only be carried out with having a full understanding of the business as a whole. Given the above, in Estonia interest protection or the public affairs function is often part of other positions, depending on the company, NGO or interest group. Also, it’s relatively common to use the help of independent PR agencies for government relations. Usually those people have background in public sector, enabling them to leverage the existing network for representing corporate interests.

Although the size of Estonia and the UK is so different, I realized during my studies that even though lobbying is heavily regulated in the UK, the fundamental idea is the same. Developing relationships with politicians or any other decision-maker comes down to basic human relations, connections and trust. None of it could be developed over short period of time. So, in that sense, public affairs as a whole is not that much different. As I concluded during classes and also from the experiences from my fellow CIPR Public Affairs Diploma students, it’s not fully possible to regulate those relations – it’s still the matter of who-knows-who, who went to school with who and the interests of parties. Political aspiration will remain to be voted back, which tends to outweigh any business interest, no matter how noble or fair. If it doesn’t serve that particular political aim, it’s very difficult to be heard.”

Thank you Mariliis and well done again on your graduation from the CIPR Public Affairs Diploma.