In the testosterone-fuelled world of public affairs, Suzy Awford stands out. And not just because the MD of DLA Piper’s Global Government Relations practice is one of the industry’s most senior female executives.
As her former deputy Pete Digger puts it, Awford cuts a different figure from the traditional macho lobbyist stereotype. ‘The refreshing thing about Suzy is that she is lacking in ego, which is unusual in this industry,’ says Digger, who now heads government relations and external affairs at AstraZeneca.
Ensconced in a plush DLA Piper boardroom that offers sweeping views of the City of London, it becomes clear this is not the only unique aspect of Awford’s story. After all, she heads public affairs at a law firm, rather than the standalone or PR-paired models more commonly favoured by London’s public affairs shops.
Public affairs practitioners and lawyers sound like unlikely bedfellows. Awford’s response to a question about clashing cultures reveals as much. After a smile and a long pause – the only evidence that an impressive poise has been disturbed during the hour-long interview – she offers a careful response: ‘I think the legal profession is changing. I think DLA is leading that change.’
It is a change that might be a long time coming. DLA remains one of just a handful of law firms that offer public affairs services in the UK, a stark contrast to the rest of the world, where law firms commonly lead lobbying. ‘The UK public affairs culture has built up around the PR industry,’ admits Awford. ‘But that is just one aspect. Most businesses are not just looking for UK advice. The public affairs industry here has a tendency to be a little bit introspective.’
This may be the closest Awford gets to courting controversy, but a serene demeanour should not be mistaken for a lack of steel. ‘She is very level-headed and sometimes that is a good thing,’ says Digger. ‘But she is not reluctant to tell it how it is and that earns respect.’
Awford demonstrates this particular attribute with aplomb when tackling the gender gap that still plagues the public affairs industry. ‘Public affairs has some challenges in keeping and motivating women,’ she admits.
‘Part of the reason for the creation of the bubble is too much testosterone – it leads you to take greater risks. There is always a temptation in recruitment to pick people like you – maybe that has led to a preponderance of male promotions.’
One senses it is an issue on which Awford has plenty to say. During her time at the House of Commons, she explains, women were not allowed to wear trousers. ‘That was 14 years ago, which is pretty extraordinary,’ she says. ‘There was a shooting range, rather than a crèche.’
Entrenched attitudes can be difficult to dislodge. ‘You would not have this conversation with a senior male,’ she points out. Fair comment, but Awford has been smart enough to use the situation to her advantage. ‘There is a certain culture that develops in the City if you are around a male-dominated table, but the upside is you are far more likely to be remembered.’
Awford believes being underestimated has actually proved to be an advantage: ‘When you do demonstrate value, you can take them unawares.’
After putting herself forward as a candidate for PRWeek’s Profile section, it is clear Awford does not want to swim under the surface for much longer. ‘Sometimes you have to stand up,’ she confirms. And she has. As head of a business that spans Europe and Asia, Awford has an impressive reputation.
‘She is very smart and has great interpersonal skills, but more importantly has great clarity of thought and the ability to reduce quite difficult things into quite simple communication,’ says Bank of America public policy executive Donna Pumfrey. ‘She has integrity and comes across as honest, which is appealing in a world where that is not always the case.’
It is a pivotal time for public affairs professionals, after the revelations of Lords influencing legislation in return for cash from journalists posing as lobbyists.
Awford favours statutory regulation of the profession, rather than the current APPC self-regulation, in which DLA Piper does not participate. ‘The industry has to demonstrate that level of transparency,’ she explains.
That is an argument many of her public affairs peers would be happy to contest. With her quiet determination and knack for springing a surprise, Awford might one day win it.
Suzy awford’s turning points
Biggest career break?
My first job in Westminster. The competition to get into the industry is so tough. There were 900 applicants for the role. That is the same for anyone coming into the public affairs industry.
Advice for climbing the career ladder?
Be determined. You get back what you put in. If you invest and add value, that will come back for you. I would also recommend seeking advice from those you respect and admire. Good advice is worth having, even if you choose not to
Have you a notable mentor?
Various people have inspired me. Janet Legrand, DLA partner and high-profile litigator, takes the role of actually encouraging her colleagues very seriously. She is the only woman on the DLA Piper board.
What do you prize in recruits?
A good brain. Determination. Drive. Somebody that listens and learns but has the confidence to take the initiative. I like people who do not take no for an answer.
2005 Partner and MD, DLA Piper GGR
1999 Director and founder, DLA Upstream (now GGR)
1996 Head of research, AS Biss
1994 Senior office clerk, Department of the Clerk, House of Commons