JBP contributes towards the PRCA’s Review of Political Predictions

15 November 2017, News

James Turgoose, Managing Director of JBP, has contributed to a PRCA report on political predictions. Launched in the House of Commons on 15th November, the report examines the fallout around Brexit, Trump’s election and the surprising June 2017 General Election. James’ contribution is below and the full report can be read here.

The rise of geo-political risk and uncertainty; how can public affairs agencies adapt and deliver? 

Introduction 

Does it matter that political experts have become, well, less expert? As Michael Gove (in) famously said during the Brexit referendum “people in this country have had enough of experts”. Well it’s one thing for the general public to have lost faith in experts but what about those businesses, charities and other organisations who employ public affairs agencies to be their experts in all matters related to politics, policy and regulations?

Numerous examples have appeared across the UK and the USA in recent months, especially since the election of President Trump, that appear to confirm that for the first time in decades political risk and uncertainty is a real issue for businesses. Many leading FTSE 100 Chairmen have confirmed that “geo-political risk and uncertainty” is on the agenda of boardrooms week in, week out. In the UK this was first exemplified by Brexit – with its myriad of implications across a range of regulatory issues attached to it – but the recent General Election and Hung Parliament have only underlined the degree to which we live in uncertain times. The election of President Trump has magnified Brexit onto the global stage – with some even questioning if the Western liberal system of rules and global trade will survive the next decade.

In a recent report by Global Counsel, which was covered in the Financial Times, the level of uncertainty around a whole host of UK public policy issues – from expansion at Heathrow, data protection regulations, the apprenticeship levy, national living wage etc – is unprecedented. Can anyone predict what is going to happen or who will be sitting around the Cabinet table in six months’ time making policy decisions?

In such a fluid and fast moving political environment  it seems to me that public affairs agencies should give up trying to make accurate short to medium term predictions – but if we do what should our role be for our clients?

What are we for? And haven’t we been here before?

For me there are many similarities with how the public affairs world has adapted in recent years to the rise of social media and before that the internet.

Two decades ago a key role of the public affairs agency would be to provide information and, where necessary, access to politicians. I’m told, by a dear former colleague, that political monitoring used to include photocopying relevant excerpts of Hansard and faxing them to the client! Unimaginable today where Hansard is updated online within hours and just one example of how agencies have adapted over time to where they can add most value.

The emergence of Twitter (it took rather a long time for politicians to appreciate the enormous benefits of being able to communicate directly with voters) posed another significant problem to the traditional role of the public affairs agency. Now anyone, including clients, can engage with politicians directly and track his or her position on a wide range of issues. If need be they can also contact them directly – the role of “gatekeeper” that used to be the preserve of the public affairs agency has disappeared. Twitter broke down the gates to the Palace and rightly so.

Of at least equal importance was how the explosion in online outlets and political content helped to create a new environment where policy issues could be raised and put on the agenda at staggering speed. New campaign organisations can appear overnight and a key role of the public affairs agency today is to provide the advice and tools necessary for companies to effectively prepare and engage with such organisations as soon as possible.

These examples demonstrate that public affairs agencies have proven themselves to be adaptable before and will do so again.

Challenging convention 

The unpredictability of politics in recent years has created two key opportunities for public affairs agencies to seize upon;

  1. The importance of challenging convention. The great Obama strategist David Axelrod (who had rather less success advising Ed Miliband) famously said “the thing about conventional wisdoms is that they are almost always wrong”. The inability of most political pundits to predict Brexit, Trump or the rise of Corbyn would seem to confirm this. So going forward the successful public affairs agencies will be the ones who challenge effectively. This might include tough conversations with clients about what they are seeking to achieve. Or it might include a hard hitting examination of whether your agency has the right connections and knowledge to deliver.
  2. Move the debate around public affairs expertise and engagement from being a “nice to have” to “essential”. In 2015 a survey carried out by Watson Helsby suggested that nearly half of FTSE 100 firms didn’t have a senior public affairs director – an indication presumably that boardrooms did not deem the political and regulatory environment of sufficient concern  to merit it. It would be interesting to run that survey again today…The unpredictability of politics means that many businesses are already reviewing their risk registers – part of this should be to ensure that their public affairs function is as good as it could be. The likelihood of course is that large parts of many businesses have always been affected by Government policy, but only recently has this been understood and appreciated in the boardroom.

So in conclusion, bear in mind the following:

  • Translate information into valuable and practical advice. In essence we all know there is an unprecedented amount of information available to everyone and anyone. But information isn’t the same as knowledge. Understand the political landscape and how it impacts upon the regulatory environment that your clients operate in.
  • Speak the language of business. Commercialise your advice and become a business adviser to your client, providing them with counsel on policy issues that will specifically affect them.
  • Plan for a range of outcomes. This might seem obvious but in a world where the unexpected is likely to happen, have a plan for all political scenarios.
  • Challenge conventional ways of operating. Including how your agency has delivered advice and support in the past.
  • Business needs us. For the first time in a generation, businesses are worried about the political landscape. The uncertainty of recent years has created a compelling commercial reason for business to buy the best advice around. Seize the opportunity.

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