Get to know your public affairs team
By Grace Thompson, public affairs lead, the Institute of Export and International Trade
Telling people I work in public affairs usually engenders one of two responses: confusion or a request for political gossip! At a wedding recently, I was asked if I spent most of my time at wine parties with Ministers and – the classic - who was the most famous politician I had met. My doctor recently told me that all she knew about political lobbying was what she had seen on US television. Although UK politics has certainly been chaotic in the past few years, thankfully we haven’t quite reached House of Cards antics.
Whilst misunderstanding of public affairs is fine at a wedding or in a doctor’s surgery, it is crucial that all organisations – from foundations to FTSE100 companies, tech start-ups to trade associations – understand the work of their public affairs teams. Contextually, this is particularly important ahead of the upcoming general election, where those teams are building relationships with potential key figures of influence in a new government, raising brand awareness and embedding key messages ahead of time.
So here are ‘Three E’s’ of understanding what your public affairs team does.
Firstly, we are educators. Members of Parliament (MPs) are continually swamped with correspondence from a range of actors, including: constituents, associations, charities, businesses and others. They are, naturally, incapable of being experts in every policy area that they will have to encounter during legislative processes. Public affairs practitioners know how to present MPs with both clear information on policy topics and solutions to problems, in order to improve outcomes for the stakeholders their organisation represents.
Although one might think that the role of ‘educator’ is less relevant when talking to Ministers, who have the weight of the civil service information machine behind them, there will always be unique experiences and data which your organisation can access, so never underestimate the value of your interlocutor function.
Many public affairs practitioners are, by nature, visionaries. It is a key strength to be able to picture the ‘what if’ vision. Your public affairs team paints this future vision to the politicians they engage with and it’s important that they have the creative space to be able to think forward and take in the broader policy landscape, rather than merely reacting to political events.
In order for your team to be able to envision what changes need to be asked for, they also need to have good access across your organisation to understand key missions, milestones and messages. So, remember to engage well internally with your public affairs team when they ask you for insights!
‘A zealous advocate of a particular cause.’ ‘Zeal’ is exactly what you want from your public affairs team. To have individuals who have both a passion for the aims of your organisation and expertise in communicating those aims well is to have an explosive combination.
However, evangelists will advocate at their best when they are well-fuelled…and fuel can run low. You only have to search ‘burnout’ and ‘public affairs’ to find a myriad of articles demonstrating how common burnout is in our field.
Women in PR recently published results from one of their surveys, showing that 92% of women said that the PR industry is a 24/7 profession (making it harder to switch off) and that 66% of senior PR women have considered quitting their job due to burnout.
Even to the untrained eye, UK politics has been crazy over the past few years and public affairs practitioners have raced to keep up with reshuffles, new department structures and fast-changing policy stances. As we head into a pre-election phase, that turmoil will only increase. So, take care of your public affairs team and show your appreciation. As you’ve just read, they do an enormous amount of work in representing your organisation at the highest levels of political influence. Keep your evangelists zealous!