Managing risk in a more politicised era
A CIPR Public Affairs Leaders interview with Stuart Thomson, the director of CWE Communications by CIPR Public Affairs Group vice chair James Boyd-Wallis
Growing up in the early 1980s, politics was always a topic of family discussion for Stuart Thomson, former head of the public affairs practice at law firm BDB Pitmans LLP and now running his own consultancy CWE Communications.
Living in Kent, a region impacted, along with many others, by the miners' strikes, “I was surrounded by political debates,” says Stuart. “And I loved John Craven’s News Round, the BBC news programme for teens.” This early exposure ignited a passion for politics, which led Stuart down an unconventional path into public affairs.
While most public affairs professionals may have started in Parliament, a think tank, or an NGO before moving into consultancy, Stuart began with a PhD in politics at the University of Aberdeen.
“I delved deep into the social democratic movement in Europe, in particular the UK Labour Party, focusing on the transformative post-war era leading up to the emergence of New Labour in 1997,” explains Stuart.
However, realising there was a world beyond academia, Stuart began approaching public affairs consultancies, ultimately finding a job at The Rowland Company which was part of Saatchi and Saatchi. While he has worked at several agencies and firms, Stuart has remained a consultant throughout his career. Though, perhaps coming back to his academic background, he has also long taught public affairs and communications through the PRCA, CIPR and others.
An evolving role
“The dynamism of working in a comms and public affairs consultancy has been incredibly rewarding,” says Stuart. "Over the years, I have witnessed the role evolve. When I started doing this twenty-five years ago, I was much more focused on Parliament."
Now the role demands a broader "range of communications expertise, from media relations to the ever-evolving realm of social media,” he adds.
Stuart explains how the responsibilities of public affairs consultants are growing as a result. “The skills needed are diverse, ranging from reputation management and ESG through to political understanding and partnership development. I’ve also handled public inquests and inquiries. This variety ensures every day is different, presenting its own challenges and rewards.”
“One of the most challenging aspects of the role is managing this greater diversity,” explains Stuart. From overseeing media relations for significant incidents to handling sensitive inquiries, the pressure is palpable. Crisis scenarios test one's mettle. “Yet, these challenges often lead to the most rewarding experiences,” says Stuart.
Managing a more fragile political environment
Equally challenging is navigating the current tumultuous political climate. While there have been quieter periods, today is noisier, marked by significant challenges and crises.
“The quieter periods of time are when the economy is growing,” argues Stuart. “When there’s economic growth, the proceeds can be spent on health, education, or the armed forces. Things were naturally quieter under New Labour as they enjoyed a significant period of economic growth.”
So, with less economic growth comes a noisier political environment. “The Government is facing some big challenges, and when people perceive that things are not working as well as they did, they lean into politics.”
Alongside greater engagement in politics, more of the work of public affairs and communications professionals plays out in public. “This is one of the biggest changes I have seen over the last 25 years. As a result, there is an expectation among the public that businesses will behave in a certain way.”
Greater government intervention
We are also living through a period of more government intervention. “This started with Gordon Brown, continued with George Osborne, and increased under Boris Johnson because of the Covid pandemic," says Stuart.
"So, we see that decisions are, rightly or wrongly, increasingly politicised. And I cannot see a situation where people demand less government any time soon.”
“But the pressure on the government to deliver with each political intervention, coupled with heightened public expectations of businesses, underscores the importance of our profession,” argues Stuart.
“Today, our job as public affairs and communications professionals is often about managing that risk.”