Engaging with Policy Makers in Pandemic Conditions

Fri 13 Nov 2020

Engaging with Policy Makers in Pandemic Conditions

As the UK remains in the throes of a complex and delicate easing/un-easing of lockdown, discussions are turning to what continued social distancing, unprecedented economic uncertainty and public demands for accountability mean for the methods public affairs professionals use to conduct engagement and get messages across.

At the brink of what is now being referred to as “lockdown one” we were due to host our annual Public Affairs Conference – 100+ professionals were ready to get together in London to talk about all the latest innovations and tools to develop effective strategies, campaigns and messages. But as we now plan for the event to return 1 December 2020, all be it in a virtual environment, we’ve been reflecting on what has changed across the public affairs sector these past 8 months and how to guide a pertinent and timely conversation.

It’s apparent that within this ‘new normal’ professionals have had to rethink their approach to campaign strategies, embrace the latest technologies and continue to build and grow a diverse workforce under a new normal. On top of this, the pandemic and lockdown have brought to light questions about how public affairs can adapt its approaches to messaging, advocacy and fostering connections in a remote world.

Henry Asson caught up with Paul Richards, a former special adviser and author of Be Your Own Spin Doctor to talk about what’s really changed. 

  • You’ve written about the power of the three-part message. However, from “Stay At Home…” to “Stay Alert…”, does the government need to have greater confidence in the public to understand more complex messages?

People have the capacity to comprehend complex information and to alter their behaviour accordingly. We do it all the time whenever some new product or piece of technology enters our lives. However, the problem with the Government’s communications over COVID-19 has been its constant evolution. I understand that the messaging has reflected the changing understanding of the virus and the shifting advice on how to tackle it, but the unfortunate consequence has been a lack of consistency, clarity and, after Dominic Cummings’ trip to Durham, credibility. We know from all the studies on persuasion, from Aristotle to Cialdini, that messages are not persuasive if we distrust the messenger.

  • Has the relationship between government and business changed and, if so, how can business plan for greater expectations? Not just in terms of tax, but perhaps expectations to deliver an “all in this together” social agenda created by government.

I think the biggest reality check of the crisis has been the importance of the role of government. The state has stepped up, not just in terms of the NHS and other governmental bodies in dealing with the pandemic, but also in terms of propping up the economy. Even the biggest anarcho-capitalist has been forced to accept the vital role of the state in a health and economic crisis, and this spirit of collaboration is bound to continue. Perhaps we are at the dawn of a new era of partnership, where government can support business through the tough times, but business can help deliver government goals such as tackling the climate crisis?

  • With continuing calls for a public inquiry into the government’s handling of the covid-19 pandemic, there seems to be no previous inquiry to hold in comparison to the scale of this crisis. In your opinion, what kind of innovation is needed to hear the voices of sufferers and set out lessons learned?

According to the Institute for Government (IfG) there were 69 public inquiries launched between 1990 and 2017, and since 1997 there have never been fewer than three running at any one time. A public inquiry has become the classic way for ministers to answer the demand ‘something must be done’. So, when it comes to the inevitable COVID-19 public inquiry, we need to do it differently. There are tens of thousands of families who have lost loved ones. I hope we can introduce a ‘restorative’ element to the inquiry, as well as identifying what happened and who is to blame. This worked well in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa.  

  • Finally, could this remote working world improve political engagement or is politics truly done better in-person?

The whole country has had a crash course in remote working and teleconferencing, and for most of us it has been a positive experience. Political meetings and conferences online have been far more enjoyable and hassle-free, especially if you don’t live in London. The MPs I’ve spoken to quite like the fact they can take a meeting quickly and efficiently online. They can certainly transact more business over Zoom without rushing about Westminster and the Parliamentary estate. I suspect we will end up with a ‘blended’ approach to dealing with politicians and civil servants, with some in-person meetings and many more on Zoom. For public affairs people, it places even more emphasis on being clear with the message, clear on the ‘ask’, and getting straight to the point – no bad thing!

Paul Richards will be chairing the Public Affairs Conference taking place on the 1 December 2020 – you can find out more and to book your ticket here.


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