Taking on the challenge

We must spot trends and expand our expertise if we are to succeed in today's complex world, says Oliver Pauley of Portland.

This is a curious time to be working in public affairs. Public - or at least media and political concern - about the way our industry operates has rarely been higher, while understanding of what we do appears never to have been lower.

Anxiety, for example, over access remains strong. But only those PR professionals stuck firmly in the past believe that the promise to open ministerial doors is what clients want. That era is long over. You are valued for the strength of your ideas, not your ability to arrange access.

This includes the ability to spot trends that are altering the landscape for decision-makers. So what are these trends?

First, localism is becoming real and will have a major impact. After a slightly stuttering start to the coalition Government's programme of devolving power and empowering communities, institutional reform is arriving.

The new police commissioners and the increase in elected mayors, along with greater powers for the local commissioning of public services, will alter the political environment. The coming years will test the limits of their powers and how they operate.

Second, think twice about commissioning another economic study showing how your industry or region is being unfairly treated. Ministers can scarcely see above their desks from the piles of 'independent' reports trying to establish particular sectors as vital to economic recovery.

Real policy ideas that contain deliverable solutions to problems are rather thinner on the ground. Where they can be found, the Government is eager to grab them.

Third, public affairs has become a board-level concern. In a time of recession and regulation, it is no longer just a few political obsessives who worry about the political environment in which the business operates. It has become much more prominent in the minds of senior executives.

Finally, the first coalition Government for 70 years has done little for the career prospects of many Conservatives. Talented and ambitious MPs who would have expected to be junior ministers are looking for other ways to keep busy and raise their profile. In some cases they are heading policy campaigns that are running way ahead of the Government's agenda.

All of which leaves public affairs professionals - whether in-house or in agencies - needing to adapt. For several years the best agencies, for example, have been focusing on developing significantly stronger strategic capability. Now some are taking the next step by helping clients enter the market of ideas.

At Portland we were delighted to add James O'Shaughnessy in a new role as chief policy adviser. James, who was formerly director of policy in Downing Street, works across our client base, offering invaluable insight into the coalition Government and the ideas which can flourish within it.

We are also looking beyond Westminster to the new challenges at local level. Whether guiding business through the new local political landscape where stakeholders can shape power or understanding the wide impact that new police and crime commissioners may have within their communities, public affairs consultants must develop a much wider expertise than once was the case.

There is no doubt that the world in which we operate is much more complex and challenging than ever before. But that, of course, is what makes it more rewarding.

We may even find time to better explain what it is we do.

Oliver Pauley is a partner at Portland.

VIEWS IN BRIEF

The Government is proposing a statutory lobbying register. How happy would you be to publish a full list of your clients?

We would be totally relaxed. If the Government decides a statutory register is necessary, it should draw on best practice.

What has been your best example of prompting public policy change?

Portland helped the Scouts put their case on new water tariffs that threatened to close Scout groups across the country. Our campaign recruited supporters and delivered £1.5m savings a year. Any campaign which includes Scouts marching on Parliament with rugby player Brian Moore is likely to get results!

 

From PRWeek's public affairs supplement, May 2012

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