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What makes good public affairs advice?

Public affairs is often more art than science but good advice should be based on solid foundations. Some of these are political, others more about behaviours. But if they come together then you get the good advice.

Public affairs is not all about connections or gut instinct. It is not necessary to be a political geek, although I think a little dose of that does help (and I plead guilty!). What is does require is political understanding. Without that then you will struggle.

Here are five foundations that I think make a good starting point for delivering public affairs advice:

  1. Recommendations – public affairs should not be engagement for engagements sake. Instead, the advice should balance the ‘pros and cons’ involved in any action and really consider the risks. Some of these come down to the nature of politicians and their, sometimes overlooked, need to be re-elected. Decisions will often be nuanced and there may not be a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ decision. But the advice needs to consider the options and make a firm recommendation.
  2. Intelligence – the advice needs to bring in a wide array of information and intelligence from the media, statements, speeches, Parliament etc. If not then the advice will simply be based on an ill-informed, possibly out-of-date thinking. The policy-making process also needs to be part of this information as well. That will impact on what is possible, when, and how the stakeholder might be able to help. The information may come from different sources – personal contacts, conversations, or publically available content. A bit of hard research is sometimes needed as well.
  3. Listening – an often under-utilised resource especially where it comes to politics when people can have very firm views. Listening can also lead to a discussion rather than orders for engagement just being delivered. It also means that valuable experience can be learned from and new ideas generated.
  4. Challenging – added to listening should be challenging. The ability not just to argue a point but to do so with a range of different stakeholders is essential. A lot of public affairs is increasingly down to reputation management and that is most effective when inherently defensive thinking is challenged. That can mean challenging senior management but also being able to engage directly with front line providers as well.
  5. Revising – good affairs advice takes into account changing circumstances and is prepared to change. That means keeping a track of how a campaign progresses, how messages are reacted to and if new information comes to light. The revision can mean saying that initial advice needs to be revised or new tactics employed. All this means having a strength of character as none of that news will necessarily be easy to deliver.

There are bound to be many other points that people can quite rightly make about what makes for good advice but I hope that this provides some useful pointers.

Maybe we all need to be challenged sometimes.

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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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