Public affairs in the new normal

By John Kavanagh 

May 20, 2020 

The coronavirus pandemic is affecting all professions across all sectors. For those working in public affairs, the post-COVID19 new normal will require a step change in how we think about, and plan for, the operation of government for the foreseeable future.  

For anyone monitoring the situation, it’s clear that the government’s pre-crisis agenda has largely been subsumed. The Johnson-Cummings post-Brexit grand vision, encapsulated in the 2019 Conservative Party General Election manifesto, is firmly on hold while the economy is kept intact by the intervention of the state.  

There is little, if any, capacity to do much else for the time being. Reform of the civil service and the BBC, lower taxes and the drive for levelling up the regions will now, quite rightly, play second fiddle to the need to reboot an economy crashing to one the worst recessions of the post-war period, the need to shield millions from the harshness of sudden unemployment and above all else in the near term, continuing to…you said it…protect the NHS and save lives….or stay alert! 

But what does all this mean for the public affairs profession?  

New normal big government. As Robert Shrimsley highlighted in a recent FT opinion piece1, the crisis could well reinforce the arguments of those who advocate for the state as the primary force for good. Expect a convergence of opinion supporting larger, more interventionist government for the near future. Arguably this provides an opportunity for public affairs to demonstrate value, via increased demands from businesses for the skills required to translate the relevance of policy decisions to their operations on a greater scale than before.  

Virtual advocacy. For the time being at least, remote working is also here to stay. Those who embrace the digital tools available for their advocacy efforts will be able to reach their intended audience above those who maintain the use of traditional methods. MPs and some Peers are beginning to appreciate the value of a virtual dialogue with their audiences, and given that the phased easing of lockdown measures is likely to mean the encouragement of remote working for the foreseeable future, public affairs professionals should be cognisant of the fact that meeting in person for roundtables, events and workshops will be off for a long time to come. 

Flexible planning. The one thing that everyone knows about this crisis is that no one knows how long it will last and what the long-term effects will be. What we do know is that the schedule of the government has been thrown completely off course. The Spending Review is widely anticipated to take place later in the year and the timing of some of the bigger strategic decisions, such as the rewrite of the Treasury’s Green Book spending appraisal and evaluation guidance also remain unclear. Public affairs can add value by closely monitoring for developments in the areas that will affect businesses, whilst always remaining alive to the fact that policy delivery will retain the fluidity of recent years when Brexit was the only show in town. 

Maintaining a network: Many a public affairs professional will have noticed by now the pile of unused business cards sitting idle at home or at workplaces. Use this time wisely to focus on maintaining and developing a wide stakeholder network and picking up the phone to those names in the black book that you haven’t heard from in a while. Virtual software is also a great way to speak to a large number of people with less time dedicated to travel to and between meetings.  

As with all professions, it’s a challenging time for public affairs, but one in which those with an eye on the long-term will thrive as they guide businesses through the recovery in years ahead. 

First published on Influence website. 

John Kavanagh has been a member of the committee of the CIPR Public Affairs Group since November 2018 and works as Head of Policy and Public Affairs at Global Infrastructure Investor Association.

Photo by Cyrus Crossan on Unsplash