Public affairs: what to expect in 2023

To say 2022 has been a volatile year for public affairs would be an understatement. PRWeek has canvassed opinion from experts across the sector on what to expect in the year ahead.

(Clockwise, from top left) Alex Deane; Simon Richards; Sonia Khan; Marc Woolfson; Nick Faith; Tanya Joseph; Alan Boyd-Hall; Moray Macdonald; Daniel Gilbert; Emma Petela

The past year has seen unprecedented turmoil at the heart of the UK’s political establishment, with public affairs agencies struggling to keep up with an ever-changing line-up of ministers and officials, let alone get to grips with policy agendas that have come and gone at bewildering speed.

We are on our third Prime Minister since the beginning of the year, with a succession of teams having come and gone at Downing Street, not to mention high-profile departures such as the resignation of the Prime Minister’s ethics adviser, Lord Geidt.

Other prominent figures to have gone include John Penrose, who quit as the anti-corruption tsar over the Partygate scandal, and Tom Scholar, who was sacked as permanent secretary to the Treasury during Liz Truss’ short-lived tenure as Prime Minister.

Here’s what public affairs experts are predicting for the coming year…

Alex Deane, senior managing director, FTI Consulting

“Trade issues will become a more important aspect of our work in 2023, as the UK seeks more deals like the Singapore and Ukraine arrangements. Pharma and financial services clients will be watching Swiss arrangements closely. Westminster stakeholder mapping will remain interesting, but rather less turbulent!”

Sonia Khan, political counsel, H/Advisors Cicero

“Businesses will need to show they are delivering value for money or risk being seen as out of touch. That means delivering campaigns via cost-effective methods such as social media as opposed to lavish Champagne receptions… ‘We’re all in this together’ must be the mantra of 2023 or risk increasing the divide between the perceived rich ‘businesses’ and the poor ‘employees’.”

Daniel Gilbert, managing director, advocacy, Hanover Communications

“Old ghosts will continue to haunt this new Government: the Privileges Committee report on Boris Johnson and the COVID-19 inquiry get underway in the new year. Starmer, meanwhile, will keep snapping at Sunak’s heels… Starmer’s bigger challenge will be more personal. Expect more media scrutiny of who he is and what he stands for as an election appears on the horizon.”

Emma Petela, director, GK Strategy

“Stability for No. 10, with Rishi attempting to reposition the Conservatives and struggling to make ground. Labour developing its programme for government but getting tied up in the details and not cutting through on messaging. For our sector? Demonstrating Labour credentials. I’d also love to see the sector advocating our positive contribution to policy-making, calling out poor practice and pushing for the highest ethical standards.”

Marc Woolfson, partner and head of public affairs, WA Communications

“Defections and rumours of defections! With Labour’s poll lead likely to remain consistent into next year, as we get closer to an election in 2024, we will hear rumours of ‘dozens of Conservative MPs’ considering shifting their party allegiance. This may be to a resurgent Reform UK, the Lib Dems or even crossing the floor directly to Labour.​”

Alan Boyd-Hall, head of public affairs, Grayling

“With two years to go until this parliament is automatically dissolved, all parties are in election mode and listening, [to] feed into those manifestos early. Ignore the smaller parties at your peril – a labour majority is far from sure with the current electoral landscape. Don’t forget the potential kingmakers who may form the next government.”

Nick Faith, founder and director, WPI Strategy

“The Tories will continue to take chunks out of each other – especially after the local elections in May – as different factions compete for the ideological soul of the party. Labour will continue to play it safe in an effort to show they are serious about forming the next government. Regulatory reform will be the single biggest political focus when it comes to creating long-term growth in the economy.”

Tanya Joseph, group managing director, Hill+Knowlton Strategies

“I think 2023 will be an exciting and interesting year. Sunak is in office but not in power, Starmer is making good ground against a backdrop of increasing industrial unrest… It makes the work of public affairs consultants even more important as we help clients navigate a political landscape that has completely changed over the past year and will continue to change as we move closer to the next election.”

Simon Richards, UK head of public affairs, BCW

“Public affairs next year is all about the election. How do we shape our client’s asks and interests in line with how both main parties are preparing for it? For the Conservatives: maintaining party discipline, projecting competence on key areas and dialling up local issues and community development. For Labour: looking like an alternative government, green growth, fiscal prudence and projecting competence through policy development.”

Moray Macdonald, group head of public policy, Instinctif

“For politics, think 2022 with a little less chaos but more grimness as the cost-of-living crisis comes up against the recession. The Government will rightly be fearing that the next winter will be even worse if the war in Ukraine persists. We’re still two years from a general election but already most minds in public affairs have turned to readying for a Labour government. With all that’s going on, the demand for impactful public affairs work will remain high.”

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