This is a guest post by Dr Stuart Thomson, head of public affairs for BDB Pitmans.
Not everyone who comes into public affairs has intentions to do so. Very often members of a communications team suddenly gain responsibility for dealing with public affairs. How should they prepare themselves and what should their immediate steps be?
During our recent webinar, Recess and Beyond: Building a public affairs strategy in a post-lockdown world, a question came in related to this very topic. It is also an issue I encounter a lot when running my public affairs training courses. Very often the team member who now has responsibility for public affairs knows and understands communications but is less clear on the political side.
The first thing I do is to reassure them that it is a great starting position. If you strip away the arcane Parliamentary language and political shenanigans then you see that the fundamental starting point is good communications. So no one should be scared off to start with.
Then you can start to get to grips with a wider understanding of what is involved. To anyone finding themselves in this position, I would recommend five steps…
1. Do your reading
There are a number of good books around on public affairs, not least Lionel Zetter’s Lobbying: The Art of Political Persuasion as well as my own Public Affairs in Practice and Public Affairs: A Global Perspective. This will help you get some of the fundamentals in place. I’ve put together some useful lists on this Amazon page.
2. Think professional development
To go into a little more depth, there are training courses available from the PRCA and CIPR as well as others. Just this year, the PRCA has launched a Public Affairs Diploma (which, full disclosure, I lead). As someone new into a role, I would expect your employers to make a training budget available so be prepared to use it (or request it!).
3. Use the free resources available
There is a wide range of really useful free information available. The Vuelio webinars, blogs, white papers, reports along with those from other organisations as well. But add to that podcasts, which I believe are a completely invaluable resource. There are the more sector specialist ones and the wider political ones, as well. Personally, I believe they help me to gain a broader, cross-party sense of issues. So I take in the Times Redbox, HuffPost politics, New Statesman, The Spectator, The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph and a whole range of others (including The Athletic if you like your football!). How do I get through so many? My recommendation is to listen on double speed!
4. Have a ‘start the day’ routine
The role of the Today programme varies, but for me it is the start of my political day. Having said that, maybe the new Times Radio will become important as well. I can then move onto some of the best newsletters – RedBox, for subscribers to The Times, but also the free Politico London Playbook. Add a selection of newspaper and new sites. Why have this routine? It isn’t just about knowing what the big political issues of the day are. Instead, it helps to identify public affairs opportunities or potential risks. I can then work with clients to do something about them.
5. Start to build a network
While your networks will not be mutually exclusive, it is useful to think of having a public affairs network and a political network. So attending events, or virtual events at the current time is a starting point. For the public affairs side, think about joining (free) the PubAffairs network. Then you can think about the more political side. This could come through your own political activity or through attending political events (party conferences, parliamentary receptions, etc.).
There is one other very important aspect that anyone new to public affairs needs to consider at all times and that is their ethical responsibilities. It is best to think about ethics from the outset so that they are engrained in everything you do. These will include any statutory requirements but also the codes operated by the PRCA and the CIPR.
Once all these steps are in place, then you are ready to get going!