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25 September 2020

282: Peak public affairs? No, there is much more to come

With government announcements on COVID continuing to come thick and fast, the need for political engagement has never been more important. But the idea that we have reached peak public affairs is wrong. There will be even more need for good political engagement advice in future.

Writing in PR Week, Editor-in-chief Danny Rogers, suggested that despite the darkening mood, there is growing evidence that corporate affairs is reaching its peak influence. Highlighting evidence from in-house and consultancies, Rogers shows that there is a growing importance of corporate and public affairs.

I would go further and suggest that public affairs is likely to only grow further in importance. This means that any organisation should be thinking about its strategy, its team (in-house or consultancy support) and the resources available to it.

Why is public affairs only likely to rise in importance?

  1. The rise of corporate affairs issues – as Rogers discusses in his article, there are a number of issues that require the attention of corporate affairs teams. The knock-on from this is that, handled well, these issues should be considered by the public affairs team as well. The real damage to an organisation is inflicted by political intervention – new regulations, legislation, adverse political comment etc. So the more that organisations need to respond to defend their reputations, the more that public affairs is needed.
  2. COVID-19 is going nowhere – it seems that we have at least six more months of semi-lockdown, or varying states of lockdown across the whole of the UK, with the economic implications that it brings. Whilst Westminster has tried to take charge of many of the support mechanisms being offered, the devolved nations too have their own plans and procedures in place. So whether the focus is on Westminster, Holyrood, Cardiff or Belfast, the issue is one of the need for engagement to shape the support on offer.
  3. Not all sectors are the same – the type of help needed is not universal but needs to be crafted to suit the circumstances. That can only happen with engagements with politicians but also officials and advisers. They need to hear from organisations as well as trade / representative bodies if they are to really understand the issues and support needed. This will not end simply when the threat of COVID-19 starts to fade.
  4. Future government agenda – in recent weeks the Government has been trying to move beyond COVID-19 to map out some other policies. Unfortunately they are finding this quite challenging. But it will get more of an opportunity to show what a Johnson-led Government really looks like sometime soon(ish). Their 2019 manifesto wasn’t brimming with ideas and what policies it did contain were quite embryonic. So it will need help in mapping out a more policy-rich future to enable it to fight the next General Election on a platform of delivery. We may start to see some of that future platform emerging during the forthcoming virtual party conference.
  5. The rise of effective opposition – as Keir Starmer moves beyond pulling his new team together, the party will start to develop its own policy positions and further distinguish itself from the Corbyn era and its own 2019 manifesto. The same could be said for the Lib Dems as well as they try to re-establish themselves. That is to say nothing of all the elections due in 2021, in Scotland and for mayoralties, which all require the development of manifestos. Again, public affairs activity will be needed.

So public affairs really needs to be taken increasingly seriously in the coming months. There is no sign of a peak just an ever steeper climb requiring increased effort.

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