Public affairs and growing as a senior leader

By Rob Okunnu Chart PR. MCIPR, CEO Royal College of Paediatrics & Child Health

One of the questions I’m asked from time to time is how I grew into senior leadership positions. My early career working in-house on public affairs was followed by some time leading teams across a wider communications mix in a number of different organisations and sectors, through to latterly becoming a CEO. As I reflect on my journey, there were skills and experience gained that opened up possibilities. I am strongly of the view that the public affairs discipline is an excellent foundation for someone aspiring to a senior leadership role, and I will tell you why.  Below are four broad public affairs capabilities that I see as particularly transferable: 

1. You boundary-span and horizon-scan
Public affairs practitioners perform a crucial role as ‘boundary-spanners’ in an organisation, bringing insights from external environment and making sense of that for their internal stakeholders to assess how to respond. Linked to this is how public affairs, at the core, also requires being finely attuned to current affairs, the latest discourse, and knowledge of who the key players are. The horizon-scanning skills that public affairs practitioners have means that they are able to boundary-span, keep on top of the environment and offer relevant insights on opportunities and possibilities for their organisations. It means being proactive and organised to know when relevant announcements take place, assessing any implications, and discerning timescales and what work internally may need to be factored into responding. Being agile in these ways is of great advantage in a senior leadership role where having timely insight makes a difference to decisions that need to be made.

2. You analyse, develop strategies, advise and provide recommendations for action
Public affairs very much requires superb analytical and strategic planning ability as well as skills in providing advice and clear recommendations for action. While it is one thing to monitor and present information on latest developments in politics, policy, legislation or regulation, there is further skill in analysing information that can often be voluminous and complicated into succinct briefings or reports, tailored to the needs of your organisation. That will also involve making sense of information by making recommendations on what should be a course of action to achieve an objective or overcome a challenge. You can only really do that by also knowing your organisation extremely well, being thoroughly infused with its strategic aims and knowing what internal governance is needed to define a position and make decisions. In senior leadership roles, you apply such transferable knowledge to the very many issues you deal with, not just the ones related to public affairs.

3. You aim for great written and verbal communications
Of course, written and verbal communications are integral to public affairs. Letters, briefings, reports, action notes from meetings and other written communications are the mainstay of the public affairs practitioner. This is not writing for writing’s sake; it’s knowing what mode of communication is best for the audience, how points are captured to be easily understood, and how information is fact-checked and referenced. Public affairs practitioners also need to be well-versed in their verbal communication, often presenting to colleagues or other stakeholders. Having the ability to write and being in possession of clear verbal communication skills are essential to all roles, no matter what stage of your career.

4. You navigate stakeholders and are an ambassador
Related to the previous point is stakeholder management and how public affairs practitioners are able to navigate often complex and competing stakeholders. It is no easy feat being able to map stakeholders and to be sensitive to what, why, when and how to engage them. It is a continual balancing act to make sure that both external and internal stakeholders are engaged in the right way, in the right format or forum, and at the right time. Teamed with this (and the previous point), public affairs practitioners also have an ambassadorial role with the stakeholders they engage with. Such relationship management skills are applicable across any setting.
For the aspiring senior leader in public affairs

The above skills from public affairs provides something solid to build on. For anyone in public affairs currently aspiring to a senior leadership role, my tips in a nutshell are:

Look to widen your knowledge and experience: This is particularly helpful if, for example, you want to move to a director of communications role where you’ll need more knowledge of other communications disciplines like media relations, internal communications and others. You can develop such experience through training, volunteering opportunities (e.g. charity, school governor etc), or if you have internal opportunities to develop through involvement in collaborative projects. Similarly, for those of you who want to move from a director role into a CEO position, you can gain more experience particularly around areas like finance, governance, HR and organisational strategy through training and development, volunteering as a trustee or as a non-executive director.

Take leadership and management development courses: It is well worth doing accredited courses in leadership and management to have a wider knowledge base on the core skills in general management and leadership. The learning from such courses will complement the technical and subject-matter expertise that you have already developed. The networking opportunities are also well worth it. 

Get Chartered: Getting chartered with CIPR is a strong commitment to professionalism (through assessing ethics, leadership and strategy) and visibly demonstrates growth and continuous improvement. Public affairs practitioners should take the opportunity to achieve chartered status – I thoroughly recommend it. If you’re eligible, sign up for the online chartership assessment customised for public affairs taking place on 13 March 2024.  

Mentor and be mentored: By this, you should have three types of individuals in your orbit. The first is someone you mentor who is earlier in their career than you. The second is someone at a similar stage of your career where you mentor each other. The third is someone further along in their career than you who can mentor you. All three are of enormous value.
Go for it!

I hope that I have given flavour of why public affairs offers useful skills for public affairs practitioners looking to develop into future senior leadership roles. Public affairs brings such added value to organisations, not least because of the capabilities in helping navigate complexity, ambiguity and uncertainty. I encourage anyone wanting to grow further as a senior leader to go for it! Your skills and experience gained through public affairs coupled with the wider skills and perspectives you’ll add through further development activities can only be of benefit for the future.