Test Perceptions: Or Fail in Public Affairs

Some public affairs campaigns fail.  It is, however, the consideration given to why the campaigns fail that is one of the most valued techniques in public affairs.  Without this re-evaluation campaigns will continue to fail despite effort and resources.

It may seem obvious to incorporate lessons learned, but too often the same approach to campaigning is repeated regardless of the outcome.  In such cases, more often than not, deeply entrenched organisational behaviours are to blame.  The idea that ‘this is how we do things around here’ makes changing behaviour extremely challenging.  And this is not unique to public affairs.

Listening to Sir John Jones speak recently about challenges facing education, I was struck by how often public affairs practitioners too fail to learn.  Sir John highlighted the importance of double loop learning.  Chris Argyris (1923-2013) suggested, in my highly simplified interpretation, that organisations despite repeated attempts will keep going at the same goal.  Taking a double loop approach, rather than a single loop, means examining the assumptions and shifting, if needed, the goal.

In a diagrammatic form, Andrew Bryant cites the work of Argyris & Schon (1974) in his blog.

Very few campaigns go back a stage in their thinking to consider whether or not their goal is the right one.  This is often set by others and presented as what the campaign needs to achieve.  There is also a danger that if something is seen to work then it is repeated by others as well.  This risks diminishing its returns over time and the more that it becomes accepted practice then the less impact it is likely to have.


Given the amount of variables in public affairs – including elections, changing issues and changing personalities – double loop thinking is an essential.  Without it campaigns will fail.


In other words, those involved in public affairs campaigns need to constantly test their own perceptions.


Considering this in a more positive way, in a piece on Stonewall’s secrets of successful charity lobbying, their Director of Campaigns, Sam Dick, suggests four simple principles:

  1. Collecting robust evidence
  2. Being assiduously non-partisan
  3. Resonating with your audience
  4. Working with “unusual suspects”

This is the type of thinking that is ready to test perceptions which leads to success.  It is not just about more of the same, but of seeing what works and does not, having the ability to learn and then changing tact if required.

In a consultancy environment, it also means having the ability and confidence to go back to clients and saying that the initial approach was wrong, did not work and providing details about the new way forward.  This is not always easy especially when the work has been charged for.

Constantly testing perceptions is important, especially in the run-up to a General Election.  Policy positions are likely to shift and develop, issues that resonate with the public will come and go and the fortunes of the parties will fluctuate.  Common sense says that these need to be factored into campaigns but too often the goal remains absolute despite what it going on around it.

For some, trade bodies etc, shifts in goals can be difficult to achieve when they are usually the common point around which an often diverse membership can coalesce.  But without such changes, it could be difficult to achieve anything.

Stonewall stands as an example of what can be achieved.


Stuart is a public affairs and communications specialist with BDB Pitmans 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 advised 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‘ (heralded as a book that “every aspiring business leader should read” by MIS Asia), ‘Public Affairs in Practice’ and ‘The Dictionary of Labour Quotations‘. His most recently published book, ‘Public Affairs: A Global Perspective’ has been called ‘an absolute treasure-trove’ and is a recommended read by the Government Communication Service (GCS). Stuart regularly writes and lectures on a range of business and political issues and as well as blogging for BDB Pitmans he contributes to the Huffington Post and has written for the CBI, (former) UKTI, Total Politics and LabourList. He is also an adviser to the Entrepreneurs Network (TEN) and a regular speaker and chair at conferences. He has appeared on Sky News, BBC 5 Live, BBC World, the Today programme and on Ukrainian TV and has been a judge for the Public Affairs News, PR Week, Public Affairs and the European Public Affairs awards. Stuart is a CIPR trainer leading the 'Practical Public Affairs' course.

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