In Defence of Public Affairs

Far from being used as an excuse to help explain Boris Johnson’s retort of ‘f**k business’, public affairs is a valuable organisational tool especially at a time where reputation is everything.

Writing in The Times, ‘Cavalier Johnson must curb his wild side’, Daniel Finkelstein, suggested that Johnson’s comment: “is really not about business. It’s not about enterprise and making money, it’s not about commerce. It’s more about big organisations and public affairs departments and ‘human resources’. It’s about ‘agendas’ and ‘positions’ and ‘corporate responsibility’.”

Of course, I may be about to fall into the trap of being one of the self-important people Boris is concerned about (“It’s more that he [Johnson] thinks nothing is as important as self-important people claim it to be.”), but public affairs plays a valuable role in politics as well as business, and other organisations.

Sadly, this explanation of Johnson’s attitudes is typical of the attitudes public affairs often faces and the justifications we continue to have to make.  Opponents paint public affairs as a sort of political spin machine in which businesses, in particular, hide what they do badly and present a polished version of what they do well.  Similarly, engagement with the policy processes are viewed as self-serving and simply commercially driven.

The reality is that public affairs should help to get an organisation’s house in order. Part of our role is to help organisations understand the profile of their political risk and where threats to their reputations can come from. This puts them in a position to do something about addressing those risks and altering their behaviour. Public affairs is at the heart of reputation management and protection.

Certainly public affairs is also about seeking to influence public policy outcomes but not in a dark or nefarious way. Instead, the emphasis is on transparency and openness. Just look at the demands rightly made by the Public Affairs Board and the CIPR if anyone is in any doubt and that is alongside the statutory register of lobbyists.

At the end of the day, the politicians will make the decisions. We can present the evidence, the arguments, the benefits but politicians and civil servants will be the one ways to weigh all this up and make the decisions.

Public affairs is also about helping organisations understand what politicians and government want.

This is not a one-way relationship.

Armed with the evidence and information, better decisions can be made and possible laws improved. In fact, throughout the preparation for Brexit there were constant calls from Ministers for businesses to ‘tell us what they want’, ‘what is really happening on the ground’ etc.

Similarly, government is always inviting business leaders, and those of other organisations, to sit on panels and expert groups. They know they need their help and assistance. Such opportunities mean that businesses, and their representative organisations, can raise the profile of the issues of most importance to them. There are benefits for all.

We all know that sometimes politicians come up with ideas that are ill thought through.  Well, it is the role of public affairs teams to recognise that and help develop the policy.

Considering the role of lobbying, the Cabinet Office itself said that: “Lobbying serves an important function in politics – by putting forward the views of stakeholders to policy makers, it helps in the development of better legislation.”

It stresses the need for it to be ‘open and transparent’ and that brings us back again to the Codes already mentioned.

Why does all this matter so much? Well, Boris Johnson is likely to be our next Prime Minister and if he leaves the impression that public affairs is, at best, self-important then many organisations will be the poorer for that.  But so will government.

Many may also detect a hint of irony if Johnson thinks others are being self-important…

Photo by Bruno Vieira on Unsplash

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