History and Memory: Two Key Leadership Traits in Public Affairs

Whilst a week is a long time in politics, there is no excuse for organisations failing to build on past public affairs campaigns. But to do this needs a collective memory and experience which is sadly all too often ignored. History is critical.

Whether organisations want to hire their own historian is a different matter but there remains a need to retain knowledge about what has been tried before, what worked and what didn’t and what the lessons learned were.

As I have written about in a previous blog, policy ideas do have a habit of coming back and being revisited. Few ideas are ever totally new. For those considering a public affairs campaign this means being able to draw down on the experience and knowledge of others and being able to access it.

Handovers when people and teams move invariably focus on the here and now – those projects or campaigns that need to be dealt with following the immediate aftermath of a move. Few, if any, pass on the baton of older work. That potentially results in more senior staff, those who have been there longest, being the only ones who really know what happened in the past. In recent years, many organisations have faced the challenge of financial cuts with senior staff leaving, finding new roles, or taking redundancy and / retirement.

Just consider the evolution of political parties. They are products of their histories and events, not least election results. The biggest dis-service John Major (and Norman Lamont) ever did to the Conservative Party was to lose them their image of economic competence through Black Wednesday and leave the ground open for Tony Blair. Similarly, Gordon Brown crashed the economy into the banks.

Of course, such events are always much more nuanced than that and the argument has been made that the devaluation of the pound on Black Wednesday actually led to the strengthening of the economy which Labour built their electoral success on the back of.

This history should not though be confined to the development of the brand, objectives or values. It also needs to be focus on the more mundane, who worked where and did what when. Which stakeholders were met with? What did you promise them over a period of time? Did you deliver on those promises? Will the failure to do so prompt a backlash?

The history and memory of an organisation needs to consider:

  1. what campaigns were undertaken and why
  2. why the issue came about and what it was trying to address
  3. which stakeholders were engaged and what was promised
  4. the arguments deployed for and against
  5. the team involved in the project and what their feedback was

All this needs to be backed up with archives of briefing papers, media coverage, correspondence etc.

In a crisis situation, there may also need to be access to files and records. Accusations can often be historic in nature and if the files and records do not exist it makes the communications much more difficult.

A collective memory has to be maintained and curated. This requires time and effort and means it has to be taken seriously. Is it time to assess your own history and memory?

Stuart Thomson

Stuart is a public affairs and communications specialist at Bircham Dyson Bell LLP advising clients on all elements of their public affairs strategies including political and corporate communications and reputation management. His work also includes consultation and planning communications and he has worked on a number of high profile media relations and crisis communications programmes. Stuart is an honorary research fellow at the University of Aberdeen and is the author of several books including 'New Activism and the Corporate Response', 'Public Affairs in Practice' (for the CIPR) and 'The Dictionary of Labour Quotations' (published by Britain's leading political publisher, Biteback). 'New Activism and the Corporate Response' was called a book that "every aspiring business leader should read" by MIS Asia. Stuart regularly writes and lectures on a range of business and political issues. Stuart recently released a book published by Urbane Publications, 'Public Affairs: News, Views and Hullabaloos' based on his blog. He is also a CIPR trainer and was shortlisted for the 2014 Director of the Year award by the IoD and CIPR.

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