Birmingham, the location of Conservative Party Conference

Making the most of Party Conferences

by James Boyd-Wallis

Party conference season is upon us once again. My fellow CIPR Public Affairs Group committee member David Boot established why conferences matter earlier this summer. 

But once there, how should public affairs professionals make the most of conference, despite the late nights, early mornings, and warm wine?  
This year is going to be very different 

With a new Prime Minister and Cabinet, this year’s Conservative Party Conference will be unlike any other in recent years. 

Activists, organisations, and public affairs professionals will see it as a really good “opportunity to get a sense of Liz Truss and her top team,” says Zoom’s government relations manager Drew Smith.  

But with some ministers having been appointed recently, the flip side is that we may see slightly less “in-depth policy discussions” in fringe events as speakers grapple with their new brief, adds Drew.

Meanwhile, with an election now around two years away, those at Labour’s conference will be focused on ensuring the party is fit to govern. 

For public affairs professionals, this means aiming at influencing the party’s manifesto. 

Have a plan 

As with any big event, making the most of party conferences is about having a plan while building in some flex in the schedule. 

As head of public affairs for law firm BDB Pitmans Stuart Thomson explains, “have a timetable and objectives.” But leave yourself “enough flexibility to have random conversations and attend fringes that interest you personally”.

“Serendipity plays a hugely beneficial role at conference but only if you allow it to,” cautions Stuart.

When it comes to engaging with MPs, former Conservative Party staffer Drew agrees that it is best to plan before speaking. “MPs will be open to engagement, but this will only be effective if you think carefully about why they should care about what you have to say. This will be especially so for new ministers.” 

Prioritise what works

With such a huge number of people, events and venues, conferences can be overwhelming, so public affairs professionals should focus on what delivers value. 

“Going out for lunch or an informal dinner with a group that contains MPs is always a good bet and use of your time,” notes Drew. 

Arranging coffees with several MPs throughout the morning can also be effective. However, not every MP will show up or to have the time to stay for long, so it’s best to get to the point. 

Among the flurry of activity, it’s important to get the basics right. 

“Always take good notes. It helps you to remember what was said at fringes, the names of the people you talked to, and those brilliant ideas that pop into your head often later in the evening,” notes Stuart. 

“Without those notes, you will lose the opportunity to be proactive in your follow-up to the conferences. That is when their real value is seen.” 

Remember you’re always on

While it may be tempting to enjoy a few glasses with colleagues and friends, PA professionals should bear in mind that party conferences are predominantly professional, not personal. 

“The watchword at Conference must be professionalism,” advises Stuart. There’s little point in telling people not to socialise or stay up too late “but always remember that you are there to represent your organisation or your clients,” he adds. 

Nevertheless, Drew recommends getting “on the guest list for one of the big parties” given the chance of quality networking. Examples include those hosted by News UK, The Spectator, Conservative Home, or The Telegraph. 

Sounds like an opportunity not to be missed. Just remember to pack some Alka Seltzer.