A short-term focus on personality is no substitute for strategy, says Fiona Mason

Barely a week goes past without PR Week reporting on the latest senior Tory adviser jumping ship into the grateful arms of the public affairs industry. According to a recent article in the Financial Times, the prospect of an election has had UK lobbyists embroiled in a "desperate scramble to secure people close to David Cameron".

 

Movement between the political establishment and the public affairs industry is as cyclical as politics itself. However, with the prospect of a change of government, activity is always more marked. In 1996, every public affairs consultancy in town was falling over themselves to recruit Labour apparatchiks. As the political tides shift in the opposite direction we are seeing exactly the same thing happening again, except this time blue is the colour.

But what does this say about the public affairs industry? The best consultancies, like Political Mandate, pride themselves on providing a more strategic and professional service to clients, based on the premise that public affairs is about more than a set of party political affiliations, lunches with contacts and full address books.

It is always better to be able to advise the client on the right approach, timing and positioning of their messages so that they are able to understand, navigate and shape the policy and regulatory environment they face. Mandate has always taken the view that it's not who you know, it's what you know and this has served us in very good stead over the past 13 years.

So for many in the industry it is frustrating that in the run up to an election so many consultancies try to rebrand themselves according to the lie of the political landscape - snapping up anyone with Tory credentials and positioning themselves as ‘Conservative' consultancies. This just reinforces an unhelpful and old-fashioned stereotype of the industry. It is also to misunderstand public affairs itself, which is a complex interaction between policy, politics, and process, with personality forming just one piece of the jigsaw.

Personalities are only an issue when you have little substantive to say about policy. Well-advised businesses and organisations have been engaging with the Conservatives - and with all parties - over a number of years, and have been able to make a meaningful contribution to current party thinking. Understanding the internal policy debates and philosophy of the Conservatives is critical. Hiring legions of former researchers (sorry, ‘Chiefs of Staff') to Tory MPs is not.

A word of advice here to those Conservatives who may be tempted to make the leap across to the public affairs industry. Calling in favours from ex-colleagues is not in the long-term (and probably not in the short-term) going to benefit the reputation of clients, nor in the end help them achieve their business objectives. It is also not a particularly edifying or gratifying way of working.

There is another lesson here for those looking to splash their cash on Tory ‘stars'.  You have to wonder why, after so many long years in opposition, someone would want to quit with the prospect of power so close.  A genuine member of the senior team, or a true Cameroonie, would surely stay on for at least a few months after the election to savour what they have worked so hard to achieve.  Just be very cautious when those ‘senior advisers' and ‘members of the inner circle' come knocking.

Also think hard about the recruitment opportunities that arise from other, perhaps less expected, quarters. As the election approaches, we are all bracing ourselves for a tsunami of CVs from current Labour special advisers. My advice would be to resist the urge to consign these to the dustbin marked "politically irrelevant".

Current and recent spads will almost certainly have a greater understanding of how government works, of the various pressures ministers face, and of detailed policy issues than somebody who hasn't worked at the highest levels of government. There are many Labour special advisers who would add far more value right now than their less experienced Conservative counterparts.

This, of course, is why if David Cameron wins the election he is expected to promote some Tory ‘silverbacks' with real experience of government, like Stephen Dorrell or Peter Lilley, at the expense of some of his current, comparatively inexperienced frontbench team.

So at Mandate we are sceptical of the current stampede to sign up alleged Tory ‘stars'.  If the right Conservative comes along we will certainly consider them.  We have done so very successfully in the past.  But they will have to fulfil the criteria we set for the whole of our team - are they politically smart people able to deliver great quality advice and support that helps our clients achieve their business goals?

Providing insight into the policy-making process and philosophy of the Conservatives is far from being the preserve of only those who have worked at CCHQ.  We have a whole team of high quality people at Political Mandate who can already do that in detail - and what's more, put it in the context of wider political and business developments, rather than taking only a one-eyed, party political, view.

As the political cycle moves on, the current focus on personalities will fade.  The recognition will return that what organisations need is high quality advice that delivers bottom-line results.  And so the public affairs industry will get back to the business of engaging decision-makers about public policy, which is what we really do best.

 

 

 

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