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27 September 2019

247: Party conference lessons? It’s all about the engagement

The party conferences are not everyone’s idea of fun but approached properly they can offer great opportunities for engagement.

This year’s conferences have obviously been slightly interrupted by a Supreme Court decision that could make the Conservative conference more or less null and void but gave the Labour conference the boost it was otherwise lacking. For my take on Labour’s conference and Jeremy Corbyn’s speech you can read this piece in PR Week.

But one of the most telling comments from the conferences was reported in the Times RedBox email. According to the conference diary (25 September 2019), Baroness Smith of Basildon, Labour’s Leader in the Lords, ‘urged lobbyists and campaign groups at a Labour Lords reception to send in reading material for their causes’.

This shows the value in getting out and attending fringe meetings at the party conferences. It also demonstrates that politicians want and even need information from engagement. This could well go on to form and shape the doubtless forthcoming manifestos.

It could be argued that we in quite a special time. The government is preparing for a Queen’s Speech that few expect to be jammed full of new ideas. The Opposition parties meanwhile need to be seen to be holding the government to account and filling the time that has now been awarded to them by the Supreme Court.

The annual national party conferences are the one time of year when the parties really do come together. That provides an opportunity to hear about what a range of internal audiences are concerned about. So what are members, councillors, council leaders etc saying to the MPs? What pressure are the MPs under? That can all be useful information in a public affairs campaign.

So what are some tips for getting the most of the party conferences?

  • Get around the fringe – attend sessions and listen not just to the set-piece speeches but to the Q&A as well. Obviously attend the sessions with most relevance to your work but throw in the occasional curve ball as well. They can often be more surprising. Also, don’t forget the exhibition stands as well. The organisations there want to talk!
  • Make the most of the networking opportunities – there are lots of opportunities to bump into people and to have a drink (not always alcoholic!). Networking can take place around the main hotels, the fringes but also during receptions and parties. Try and identify the most relevant ones in advance. Also, building on the idea of attending curve ball fringes, they can help with networking as well. You won’t just constantly bump into the same people!
  • Set up some meetings for yourself – whilst we will all be thinking mainly about work, do not dismiss catching up with friends and former colleagues. It can make the whole conference experience a bit more bearable – it can be quite tiring!
  • Exchange information during the conferences – there can be a tendency to keep all the information together and then to feedback at the end maybe in a conference report. But more often live feedback both with colleagues and clients can be more useful. For instance, if you can get a reaction then you can feed that into the conference discussions.
  • Follow-up – this is the most important aspect of any party conferences, what you do to follow-up. Meetings, promised information, new links all have to receive attention when you are back at your desk.

I could add into this the need to drink plenty of water, remain acquainted with fresh fruit and vegetables, and get some sleep but there is a limit to what is achievable at party conferences.

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