Research among 17 top public affairs agencies has found that while most (64 per cent) expected to see fewer supporters and MPs at this year’s events, 70 per cent expected the number of public affairs practitioners to remain stable, or grow. Lobbyists suggested this disconnect was expected to be more obvious as a result of a mid-term conference season.
Open Road CEO Graham McMillan described it as ‘the most worrying trend’. ‘The big cities are far more expensive than the old seaside towns were for accommodation, and so many MPs and activists are no longer attending,’ he noted.
MHP public affairs director Nick Laitner suggested that while there would be a ‘more vocal grassroots presence’ from the two main coalition parties, ‘a large number of MPs – particularly those with big majorities, or little ministerial ambition – will be staying at home’.
However, there appears to be no drop in the number of public affairs agencies planning to hold drinks receptions, fringe events and dinners at all three events, in addition to packed diaries of one-to-one meetings. The growing chasm between MPs’ and public affairs attendance has led to concerns about the value of the season, with about one third of respondents suggesting that conferences were becoming less important.
Luther Pendragon MD Simon Whale suggested the format and content of party conferences needed refreshing, adding that ‘in most cases they don’t play a major part in achieving client objectives or outcomes’.
One agency lobbyist, who declined to be named, went as far as to suggest that it was ‘near fraudulent’ for public affairs people to tell business that they ‘must go’ to conferences. ‘If an agency is recommending random meetings in often noisy bars, something has gone wrong,’ he said. ‘Smart public affairs develops messaging and content that generates momentum and meetings in Whitehall.’
PRWeek has found that public affairs agencies are this year investing 44 per cent of their party conference cash in appearances at the Tory event.
The Liberal Democrat conference, which starts the party season on Saturday in Brighton, will garner 29 per cent of available agency funding for conferences, while agency investment in the Labour event is only 27 per cent.
Agency bosses seek coalition insight from Lib Dems at party conference
Public affairs agency bosses are expecting the Liberal Democrat conference to be a valuable way of finding out how the party plans to maintain its coalition involvement.
Eighty-two per cent have claimed their appearance at the event will be just as or more important than it was in 2010 when the coalition was formed.
Lansons public affairs director Ralph Jackson told PRWeek that he expected the conference in Brighton would help his agency to find out 'how it will manage its side of the coalition in the second half of this Government'.
PLMR consultant Tim Knight said that the event would enable him to gain a picture of 'what the backbenchers really have to say about their senior colleagues'.
Fleishman-Hillard head of public affairs Nick Williams agreed that attending the event is 'absolutely essential'.
Cicero Consulting - led by Iain Anderson - will be at the conference sponsoring a thinktank event with Nick Clegg, another fringe meeting with Scottish Minister of State Michael Moore and a dinner with MPs and lobby media.
But not everyone is expecting the event to be so useful. MHP's Laitner said: 'Last year, the Lib Dem conference was a washout for corporate visitors. So, we can only assume that this year will be equally unexciting.'
How I see it
John Lehal, MD, Insight Public Affairs
'At Insight, we have cautioned clients against organising fringe meetings, policy events and receptions, and not to waste time on meetings with people whom you can easily see in Westminster. Our advice to clients is to attend, network at other people’s events and listen to emerging thinking from ministers and commentators.'
James Gurling, Director, Hanover
'Party conferences give an important snapshot of the internal pressures ministers and spokespeople are facing, a snapshot that is far more difficult to assess if seen only through the prism of media reporting. But not all clients need to be there every year.'