Thu 17 Dec 2020
On 8 December 2020, the annual Public Affairs conference - sponsored by CIPR - brought together public affairs professionals to reflect on 2020 and look to the year ahead. In this review by conference Chair Paul Richards, we explore some of the key themes that emerged during the course of the day.
A reflection by Paul Richards
I had the privilege to chair the Dods Public Affairs conference earlier this month. I say ‘chair’ but of course the event was a paragon of efficient online conference tech. I chaired from the comfort of my own home office, without ever seeing a single delegate. This was one of the main themes for the day: the degree to which public affairs has been altered by the rise of the virtual over the real, or whether it’s business as usual, just with added Zoom.
One clear development is that politicians are more likely to engage with their external stakeholders on Zoom than in a room. MPs and ministers seem to like the efficiency, speed and ease of online briefings and meetings, making it even more important for public affairs people to be clear, focussed and on point. Delegates also heard that several speakers’ organisations, the Institute for Government for example, had enjoyed larger turnouts, from a greater geographical spread, at their online conferences and seminars.
Many of the speakers focussed on practical tips and hints in the new normal. Lord Andrew Lansley shared his extensive experience of ministerial life, and Jo Campion from the National Deaf Children’s Society gave a masterclass in running a campaign on a shoestring, and the importance of realistic, measurable targets. Margaret Ambrose, Head of Public Affairs for Young Enterprise, Dr. Hannah White, Deputy Director for the Institute for Government, and Rocky Lorusso, External Affairs Manager for the National Farmers Union shared their experiences of public affairs across very different issues and with very different ambitions.
Julian Enoizi, CEO of Pool Reinsurance and Neil Coyle MP presented a fascinating case study of changing the law relating to insurance after the Borough Market attacks, showing how small changes in law can make a significant difference to people’s lives. Rachael Clamp, Chair of the CIPR Public Affairs Group, gave her keynote address on transparency and ethics in lobbying, highlighting in particular the need for public affairs professionals to sign up to the public affairs register and abide by the highest ethical standards.
Two sessions stood out for me: the first was Carolyn Harris MP, parliamentary private secretary to Keir Starmer MP, who joined us fresh from the Chamber of the House of Commons with stories about her campaigns in parliament, for example on fixed-odds betting terminals and on the Fair Funerals Campaign. She was expertly interviewed by Georgina Bailey from the House Magazine. Second, the session on diversity in public affairs with Laura Sainsbury, Chair of Women in Public Affairs, Rebecca Deegan, Founder and Director of I Have A Voice, and Barbara Phillips, Director of Brownstone Communications. Their discussion was really inspiring, and showed that persistence and campaigning can break down barriers.
It was a conference of real expertise and insight, with loads of online polls through the day and excellent questions from delegates. We all miss the interaction of a ‘real’ conference, with the chance encounters and conversations in the margins of the event. And yet, there is a great deal to be said for an online format without the travelling and time commitment. The Dods Public Affairs conference proves it.
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