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Of boardrooms and politics

Politics has always mattered to business but in an age of public scrutiny it is even more vital, says Kevin Bell of Maitland Political.

Industry chiefs have always had to keep a sharp eye on the worlds of Westminster and Whitehall as part of running a successful company. But the wider political debate and its decision-making processes have never been more vital to the reputation, impact and success of corporate Britain.

Business news is now front page news, and public concern on issues such as executive pay have brought boardroom matters to the centre of political debate. But UK firms can be excused for feeling confused at the mixed messages being issued by a political establishment grappling with the consequences of the economic downturn and voter volatility.

While there is widespread political criticism of businesses on issues such as corporate behaviour, politicians are also queuing up to trumpet the need for businesses to invest and grow to reinvigorate the UK economy.

But whatever the frustrations, in an age of open media and public scrutiny, the most successful businesses must achieve profits for their shareholders AND demonstrate their wider social responsibility. Navigating this complex terrain, and understanding the push and pull of the relationship between politics and business, is a vital asset - and that's where good public affairs offers real value.

But just as the relationship between business and politics has changed, so the nature of public affairs has to change to be truly effective.

While traditional lobbying will always be a feature of public affairs, there is now an increasing value on shifting wider opinion through coalitions of interests, and building longer-term reputation as a means of seeking a legitimate authority to influence the policy-making process.

These new forms of engagement require new skills alongside contact books and address lists, and an instinctive understanding of how to exploit and integrate all communications channels to change opinion.

Puja Darbari of Barnardo's rightly advances the need for organisations to develop a firm evidence base and to build alliances to demonstrate wide support for particular positions in order to achieve change.

The corporate world can learn much from the way the charity sector has advanced positions through creative campaigning.

A good example is a campaign that Maitland Political created and delivered on behalf of the UK garage industry when the Government wanted to scrap annual MOTs. This would have cost the industry about £500m in lost annual revenue.

But a classic trade-focused campaign was never going to change the minds of ministers who believed the move would benefit motorists hit by rising fuel costs.

It was vital that the industry created a strong case with a wide base of support. We created the Pro-MOTe campaign to bring in organisations including the AA and RAC, road safety campaigners Brake, British Cycling and insurance companies. Together, this wide coalition spoke with one voice and, following a concerted campaign, the Government backed down.

It is this combination of creative strategy and first-class delivery that attracted me to join Maitland Political earlier this year. As part of the established financial and corporate Maitland practice, we understand both business and politics - and, crucially, how the two impact on each other.

This interaction between politics and business will be a defining feature of the next few years. Those public affairs agencies that can show their understanding of how this can work to maximise value and reputation to clients will be the most successful.

Kevin Bell is executive chairman of Maitland Political.

VIEWS IN BRIEF

Fast-forward to 2017. Which MPs will be setting parliamentary agendas? Which celebrities will be setting media agendas?

Labour's Stella Creasy is a fantastic campaigner, while Tories such as Dominic Raab, Matt Hancock and Liz Truss are ambitious and impressive. Oliver Dowden and Will Straw are two young rising stars who I am sure will be MPs next time round. We will probably see the decline of the vacuous celebrity culture we have witnessed over the past decade being replaced by the rise of the geek and entrepreneur celebrity - or at least those who can show some form of expertise and value!

 

From PRWeek's public affairs supplement, May 2012

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