Alex Deane, Bell Pottinger : A golden age for think-tanks

The importance of the policy lobby should not be overlooked by those in public relations.

I declare an interest. I love think-tanks. And I love campaigning organisations, although I recognise that the line between the two is increasingly blurred. Not only was I geeky enough to be the kid who read political pamphlets at school and debated about them at university, but I've also proudly worked for one such organisation, Big Brother Watch, and am an active member of another, The Freedom Association (TFA).

But I still think that my perceptions are accurate when I say that the importance of these groups has never been higher. They exert influence upon, and provide room to debate for, the leading lights within the coalition Government. And their importance should not be overlooked by those working in public relations.

Think-tanks are changing minds at the heart of our national debate. Case in point: not only am I pleased to see that my comrades in arms at The TaxPayers' Alliance continue to exert remarkable influence on the tax debate, but also I note that they recently provided the fire power for the No campaign in the recent AV referendum, led by politico extraordinaire and TPA founder Matthew Elliott.

The TFA's Simon Richards has recruited an army of bright young things to shake off its dated image - just one among several of the more established beasts in the field that have been completely revived of late. It now provides a vehicle for the number of increasingly active and well-organised parliamentarians who are perhaps a little more freedom-minded than some among their colleagues on the green benches.

These engines of political discourse regularly churn out star players into the political process; the TPA alone sees alumni Mark Wallace (now a PR guru at Portland), Susie Squire (now Iain Duncan-Smith's special adviser) and James Frayne (director of comms at the Department of Health) succeeding in important pastures new.

Not only are think-tanks more influential than ever, they're also more stable. Think-tanks once rose and fell with the fate of one or two dynamic individuals. Now, a new generation is ensuring that this is a thing of the past. Not only is the Institute for Economic Affairs' Mark Littlewood constantly on our screens, but his comms manager, Ruth Porter, charms the lobby and marshals an office of keen staffers. Similarly, the Adam Smith Institute's Eamonn Butler and Madsen Pirie are as influential in high-level economic debate as ever, but Tom Clougherty's diligent work underpins everything the ASI does too.

All of this should be attractive to people in the PR industry. Policy Exchange's packages for the forthcoming party conference season are slick and professional - the sort of thing that will attract and retain top grade clients. The debates hosted by the IEA and the Free Society in Lord North Street are the stuff of Westminster legend, but also see a lot of business cards exchanged, with emails following up on conversations the next day. We at Bell Pottinger recently sponsored a session with Politeia, securing great exposure with a top-class outfit as a result.

I know that people in our industry often receive invitations to events at these organisations, and often receive pitches from think-tanks looking for relatively modest sponsorship and support. I also know that people very often just junk them.

You may think that as an alumnus of the think-tank world, I'm biased - but my advice would be, don't do that. Consider it. You might find that it's the best thing you can do for one of your clients this month.


If you had 15 minutes with Cameron or Clegg, who would you choose?

Nick Clegg, because I know DC, but I don't know Nick. I was at Cambridge with his ultra-capable adviser Polly Mackenzie, and the association recommends him to me, too.

Which bodies have emerged best from the public sector cuts debate?

The British Council, which made genuine cuts before it was forced to, and The TaxPayers' Alliance, which was immensely impressive on the issue.

How has public affairs changed since the advent of the coalition?

There are fewer public sector clients - and quite right too.

Alex Deane is a director at Bell Pottinger Public Affairs

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