The Impact of Coronavirus on Lobbying

By Robert Okunnu

17 June, 2020 

CIPR Public Affairs Group Webinar 17 June 2020

There’s been an explosion in webinars during the pandemic, and the CIPR Public Affairs Group was not going to miss out.  Our very first webinar took place in June (kicking off a series of webinars this summer) and was imaginatively about what impact coronavirus is having on lobbying – very apt at this time in my view.  

Excellently organised and chaired by the Public Affairs Group’s own Max Sugarman, the one-hour discussion was a whistle-stop look at public affairs during this period.  With a good mix of public affairs professionals joining the webinar from the private, not-for-profit, in-house and consultancy backgrounds, there was a rich range of perspectives.  So, what did we learn?

Is other comms activity diluting public affairs? 

Undoubtedly, the past few months have been an opportunity for lobbying and public affairs.  People in organisations that normally wouldn’t have taken much notice have rushed to tap into its potential.  As one attendee said, ‘this is a good time to get your voice heard.’  Perhaps public affairs had some help with the UK government’s daily press briefings which (until recently) has given public affairs professionals the opportunity to explain internally what’s happening in the outside world.  ‘Trusted adviser’ and ‘sounding board’ seem the phrases describing public affairs’ contribution in this period.   

But with this has come the pressure for the typical public affairs manager to often be a jack of all trades (particularly in smaller organisations), covering not just explaining process and reporting back but also knowing content and how to maximise impact with stakeholders.  There’s still broadly recognition that public affairs is part of the wider integrated comms mix – albeit at this time, coronavirus conversations are proving the unique worth of public affairs.  

Public affairs – engaging or transmitting?  

With this chance for public affairs, is this all one-way transmission?  There was a broad view that although the pandemic is pretty much the dominant game in town, politicians were also interested in hearing about other issues of importance to their constituents but not necessarily linked to the virus.  Public affairs was uniquely positioned to help provide politicians with information – but this wasn’t straightforward, as those professionals working in sectors not at the sharp end of coronavirus, felt that they had to work harder to get noticed.  Those not from health, education, transport, or retail for example said that it was a struggle to get cut through.  And whilst the level of engagement by some public affairs professionals was felt to be lower, the engagement itself was more focused when a connection was made.  

Irrespective of the virus, all agreed that public affairs professionals should always aim to be in engagement not transmission mode.  Going forward, the challenge will be sustainability of relationships with stakeholders. 

What about opportunities to re-engage stakeholders?

On this, the landscape is plentiful but challenging.  The level of debt being accumulated by government and its current interventionism would invariably lead to more scrutiny over public spending.  Furthermore, with devolved nation and regional elections in the future pipeline, public affairs professionals were asking themselves what they should be doing now to prepare (e.g. will social distancing still be a factor, and if so, what impact will it have on campaigning?).  

The pandemic has shone a spotlight on the difficulty in maintaining a four-nation response, plus keeping the tough balancing act between local authority level and national government together.  In England, with so much on the agenda with the expected devolution white paper and tight pressures on some local authority finances (exacerbated by coronavirus), the need for stakeholder engagement was crucial.  Championing democratisation at local level meant that would also mean thinking creatively about how elected officials and local people can meaningfully engage in the absence of face-to-face meetings.   And at Westminster level, the crop of recently elected Conservative MPs in the north of England and how the priorities of those communities would be addressed was a further opportunity for engagement.  

All were agreed that there would be a fiscal event to stimulate the economy but the challenge for government wasn’t purely economic, it was about building public confidence and for public affairs, that meant challenging government to build confidence in a responsible way.  At the same time, public affairs professionals were also mindful of the opportunities that could stem from engagement with the Green Recovery agenda.   

What this all means

Like most aspects of life, coronavirus has had an impact on lobbying and public affairs.  But public affairs professionals have been responsive to the engagement opportunities created to help stakeholders understand their sectors and offer solutions to problems.  With little sign of the virus being eradicated at least in the near future, public affairs must continue to help organisations make a difference – by being a distinctive part of the integrated comms mix, by engaging not transmitting, and by continually looking for opportunities to re-engage stakeholders.  I don’t think we can disagree with that.

The CIPR Public Affairs Group Committee’s next event will be on Wednesday 15 July, with Jamie Susskind, author of Future Politics: Living Together in a World Transformed by Tech. You can register to attend here  

Robert Okunnu serves on the CIPR Public Affairs Group  and is Director of Policy and External Affairs at the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health.