I’ve worked in public affairs and communications roles at EU and UK level in the public and private sectors for the past six years. Following a stint with the European Parliament’s communications directorate, I spent 3 years with a major trade body in Brussels before moving to London.
How did you get into public affairs?
What was your first job and what did you learn most from this role? It was a bit of a roundabout route as it is for many people I suppose. When I completed my MA, I was selected for an internship on the European Parliament’s Robert Schuman programme. From there, I moved to a small association in Brussels where I ‘cut my teeth’ engaging with MEPs and the Commission.
What does your current role entail on a day to day basis?
Each morning, I will normally have a plan for what I want to get done that day. Oftentimes however, that plan goes out the window by 9.05am! That’s the nature of working in a combined PA/PR role. While public affairs is quite structured, media relations is about dealing with the unpredictable at a moment’s notice. I could be called up to react to a story in that morning’s papers or something that Government has announced. It’s a bit of a juggling act, but I enjoy the challenge.
When did you first decide that "EU public affairs" was something that you wanted to pursue?
When I was studying for my undergraduate degree in Ireland, there was a great deal of public discussion on the EU, especially leading up to referenda on the EU constitutional treaty (2004), Lisbon (2007) and later the ‘reform treaty’ in 2011. Uniquely in Europe, Ireland must, for constitutional reasons, hold a referendum on each new EU treaty. It was around this time I developed a strong interest in all things EU and this was fuelled further during my postgraduate studies when I decided to focus my MA thesis on the Turkey-EU relationship; something which has become even more topical in the current climate.
When did you decide that you wanted to head to Westminster?
Working in Brussels from 2011 to 2015, I developed an intimate knowledge of the workings of the EU institutions, in particular the European Parliament, as well as the broader community of European industry and NGO stakeholders. However, after four years inside the ‘Brussels Bubble’, I had a yearning to develop my skills and knowledge in public affairs and media relations further afield and Westminster seemed the most challenging and exciting political environment after Brussels in which to do this. When an opportunity came up in London which enabled me to continue working on food and environment issues, it seemed like an ideal move and one I have not regretted.
In your current role at the BRC, how is your time split between public affairs and communications?
I’ve found that for the most part, public affairs and communications go hand in hand. Political and media stakeholders are naturally crucial audiences for a trade association and there are real benefits in taking a broad, strategic, holistic approach to engagement with both audiences.
How different is EU from UK public affairs from an association perspective?
In certain respects, they are not all that different at all. Both agree common positions among their members and lobby institutions on their behalf. EU level associations however, have to navigate the complexity of 28 different political and legal environments as well as be mindful of linguistic differences and cultural sensitivities which are highly important in themselves. Something high on the political agenda in one state such as GMOs for example, may not feature in public debate in another.
Which campaign/issue are you most proud to have been involved in?
During my time at the BRC, I’ve really enjoyed working on a number of campaigns on tackling modern slavery in UK supply chains. It has been a real eye-opener to learn of some of the horrible practices that can occur all over the world and I really enjoy knowing that in some small way, the work I am involved in could have a positive impact on people’s lives in other parts of the globe.
What did you enjoy about working in European public affairs?
I loved the incredibly multicultural work environment and having the chance to work on issues which have a pan-European dimension such as tackling climate change for example.
How important is completing a stage in the European Institutions to a career in EU public affairs?
I was lucky to have been selected for the European Parliament stage and this was a good grounding in the Brussels political environment. However, I have many friends who took an alternative route, including interning for companies, NGOs and industry bodies. I think what is really important is the quality of an internship and what you learn, rather than who provides it.
What’s been the best piece of career advice you’ve been given?
A former boss whom I respected greatly, once told me that if you go to bed on Sunday evening dreading going into work the next morning, then you know it’s time to change job!
How important is postgraduate study to a public affairs career? How relevant is Degree subject for a public affairs career?
In the Brussels environment it is very common to have at least one postgrad qualification; many people have multiple masters’ degrees and quite a few have a PhD. I don’t think there is a particular degree subject which is ideally geared towards public affairs. Sometimes it is useful to have a qualification in the subject you are lobbying on but it is not essential. What is more important is your ability and eagerness to take a passionate interest in a topic.
You graduated in 2010. To what extent did you feel the debt crisis had an impact on your search for your first job?
It undoubtedly had a major impact. When I was an undergraduate student, I remember being told that job opportunities would be endless. I finished my BA in 2008 when the crash initially hit and completed my MA in 2010 when the Irish economy was really in the doldrums. I think my chosen area of interest would have attracted me to travel abroad in any case, but I count myself very lucky that I was entitled as an EU citizen to freely move around Europe and avail of opportunities which undoubtedly helped me get where I am today.
What advice would you give to someone considering a career in public affairs?
It can be quite difficult to get your foot on the ladder initially, but when you manage to land your first public affairs role, you should find it is a great career and one in which you will never stop learning new things. Given the large amount of personal interaction involved, strong people skills and diplomacy are essential, as is the ability to think on your feet and also creatively. If you think this is you, then go for it.
Which skills are key for a successful career as public affairs practitioner?
In a nutshell, being able to quickly absorb and understand the key points of a complex issue or topic and then explain it in simple but accurate terms to someone else. It is also critical to have a strong interest in politics and political processes. Understanding how Parliament, Whitehall or Brussels work will get you so far; understanding why they do something will get you much further.
Which professional training courses have you taken? Would you recommend them to other young professionals?
Over the years I’ve jumped at every training opportunity I’ve been offered. The public affairs and comms environments are constantly evolving so it is key to keep your skillset fresh and up to date. I’ve undergone training courses in broadcast media interviews, public speaking, line management, formal content writing and even workplace first aid. Thankfully the last once hasn’t been needed yet!