Public affairs is alive and kicking in the UK
A new breed of consultant are more scientific in their approach, targeting of key people, analysis of data, and use of time.
The public affairs industry is alive, well and thriving in the UK. Despite what a few old dinosaurs might think.
It is, as it has always been, one of the most exciting areas of communications work, if for no other reason than that the products of its work are so tangible. Results are measurable when a law or regulation changes one way or the other, a company is invited to constructively contribute to policy making rather than summoned to defend its actions, a cause is heard when it had previously been ignored, and when a business leader is somebody politicians like to be seen with and not shunned. It’s when good businesses earn and retain their ‘licenses to operate.’
The treasured moments for me over the years have been when our words are heard uttered from the lips of others as if it was their thoughts were theirs. All communications work is about achieving change in opinion or behaviour, but in other disciplines cause and effect is hardly ever as identifiable. In-house and consultancy practitioners can point their bosses to a meeting, event, briefing, action that was the tipping point when opinion changed and a positive action followed.
The success of all of these activities is depends on a single thing and that is trust. The person briefed has to believe the person briefing them. Such trust is earned by building open and constructive relationships. The skill of a great practitioner is in knowing the right person to brief and to know how best, when and why to build those relationships. Stories hardly ever tell themselves, they have to be told in the right way, at the right time by the right people and to the right people. Two key elements of doing this well are understanding relevance and context.
In the digital age of communications the quantity and quality of data available to help craft the content of the story and determine the context of its telling and the relevance of its reception have multiplied. The places to tell and ways of telling stories have changed, usually adding to the old ones rather than simply replacing them. Consequently public affairs practitioners are to be found working in the same or similar watering holes and fine dining establishments, but also spending time analysing data and communicating digitally as well as physically face-to-face.
Some older and bigger beasts from the public affairs industry of past decades sometimes bemoan the absence of younger practitioners from some of those traditional places to do business. They mistake quantity for quality. The younger and much smarter practitioners of this generation are more scientific in their approach, targeting of key people, analysis of data, and use of time. The old brigade should not fret. Some things are as they have always been. These include the need to build relationships and earn trust. Some things change – principally the where, how and when it is done.
This is the era of fast-moving political change, unprecedented regulatory challenges, much faster and smarter communications, and new generations of politicians, officials, advisers and analysts who hail from more diverse social, economic, educational and cultural backgrounds than ever before. To work in that environment, the public affairs industry is recruiting people to work in it who have more than just a love of political intrigue and late-closing bars. Those are still useful if not essential attributes, nothing trumps a passion for politics, but now they need much more. Public affairs is now very much a science as well as an art.
Public affairs is not just alive, it’s kicking.