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The new normal: Public affairs under Brexit and Trump

2016 may have been the year of surprises and unexpected results but 2017 will be the year where the implications of those results start to come to fruition. Trump was inaugurated on 20 January and Brexit will be triggered by the end of March. Public affairs may never be quite the same again.There are already numerous papers and studies available about both results and how they came about. Some people claim, counter-intuitively, that neither was unexpected if people had really been listening. Aside from being interested as a political geek, the results and critically the campaigns also seem to shift the political landscape in which engagement takes place.

But for those of us engaging with Government and politics, what are some of the new norms that these results have delivered and what will they mean for how we work? Obviously these will not be exactly the same in every country but for those of us working across the UK and Europe, I would suggest five main considerations.

  1. Increased risk – the political environment is now even more risky for organisations. Whether they are being ‘named and shamed’ on Twitter or facing the uncertainty of the Brexit deal, it is up to those in public affairs to help identify and deal with the potential risks. Where possible!
  2. Early warning systems – public affairs needs to be able to access information quickly and pick up on what is happening across the parties and Parliament. That, of course, is not new but as with many things, it is the speed that seems to be picking up.
  3. Ability to move quickly – once it has been obtained, then the new normal suggests that it is the ability to issue information out to the right parts of the organisation so that critical action can be taken. That in turn means public affairs has to carry weight internally and needs to have the respect to ensure a swift flow of information, if needed. Reporting lines are important but so too are the individuals involved. This ability is heightened for those doing direct business with government.
  4. The populist lens – issues will need to be viewed through a lens of how they will be sold or explained through a more populist, less detailed approach. For public affairs, that brings with it the possibility of much more interplay with the media and particularly social media as well. Indications from Trump could lead to more aggressive and confrontational politics plus all the implications that brings for engagement as well. Coalition building will become more difficult but possibly more important. We have heard a lot about ‘evidence-based’ decision-making recently, but populism could lead to less reliance on facts and more on an implicit political ‘feel’.
  5. Centralisation – leaders seem to be relying on a very small group of close advisers and few others. From the UK side, that is leading to interference in what was previously considered to be the day-to-day operations of government departments. Whether this level of control can be continued or helps the operation of government can be debated. What is not up for debate is that all policy needs to pass the ‘No 10 test’.
The ‘new normal’ may change over time, especially as the terms of Brexit emerge and the new President starts to ‘make America great again’. The most obvious implications are across international trade and whether we are looking at trade deals, trade wars and / or an era of isolationism. These start to alter the ‘asks’ of government and quite possibly the level of government spending available.The ‘new normal’ is what we have.

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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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