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18 October 2019

248: The state of Public Affairs

The release of the PRCA and PR Week’s ‘Public Affairs Census’ makes for sober reading and is a warning that if the public affairs industry doesn’t change then we risk our future ability to advise clients effectively.

The survey, conducted by Opinium, is the first systematic look at the profession – who we are, what we do and what the future may hold.

Some of the findings are more surprising than others but they are all quite revealing, even quite shocking.

The London-centric nature of the profession is not a huge surprise. Until more devolution happens, London is where most politics and media happens. Unsurprising, given that it has a Parliament with real powers, Scotland is the next biggest location. Slightly more surprising is that the figure for Wales is lower than that of either the NorthWest or the West Midlands. That could be a sign of how Metro Mayors have captured the imagination or reflects the high quality of the existing operators in Wales? Maybe there simply isn’t space for others?

According to the numbers, the profession is male-dominated and young. It has a higher than average number from fee-paying schools and the numbers without a degree, only 6% with ‘less than an undergraduate degree’, shows that a very ‘traditional’ route into the profession seems to dominate and that simply isn’t available to all.

In future surveys I would be really interested in seeing a question about which universities people attended. I have a feeling that a couple may dominate…..

However, the situation is even more worrying when it comes to a lack of diversity in the profession. Nearly 80% of those surveyed identify as White British and only 10% are from a BAME background. Serious action is needed so it is great to news about the new Blueprint initiative from BME PR Pros. So we can use the powerful information contained in this survey to help drive change.

If there is one small glimmer of a silver lining it is that at least the survey shows that the industry recognises its own lack of diversity both ethnically as well as across disability.

In terms of the political persuasions of those in the profession, this does reflect the current cross party nature of politics across Westminster, Scotland, Wales, local authorities and Metro Mayors. That does seem to make sense. The slight ‘favouritism’ towards the Conservative Party where it comes to voting should come as no surprise at the current time as the party has been in power since 2010 in one form or another. In general, some organisations like to make appointments in the image of the current government, so no real surprise. Should Labour return to power then would expect the numbers to shift to reflect that in future surveys.

Personally, I was less concerned by the high numbers of young people in the profession than by the very low numbers of over 55s. Where do they all go? Into other professions, sell their companies, retire early?

Lobbying is still seen at the heart of public affairs in the survey but it also includes a whole range of other services from monitoring through to political risk analysis, and crisis management. That certainly reflects my own experience in the profession and shows how we have managed to reflect the demands of clients but in-house audiences as well.

The survey does identify a difference in the type of work performed by those with over five years’ experience. If I paraphrase slightly, those with over five years’ experience tend to focus more of the delivery of advice, whilst those with under five years’ experience deal more with day-to-day support. That instinctively makes sense as it fits with typical career progression structures.

Where it comes to the future, consultancy is seen as the way forward. It could be that some of the services we currently deliver, such as monitoring, could be outsourced to AI and so, for consultants, the margins would be low to near zero. So the emphasis on advice that can be charged for or delivered by an in-house team makes sense. But how do we ensure that we keep a flow of entrants into the profession when the ‘basics’, and the services delivered that help build the ability to advise, are potentially no longer delivered by people?

Many of the challenges identified by the census are not unique to public affairs, of course, but we all have a responsibility to help address them. It was also worrying to see that 21% of those surveyed have been diagnosed with a mental health condition. I can only hope that employers have good support in place.

You can read the full report here. It is well worth reading.

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