On Wednesday 20th March, senior figures from across the public affairs industry gathered for the inaugural PRCA Public Affairs conference. With the UK still due to leave the EU in just eight days, the conference topic was unsurprisingly ‘Cutting through Brexit’.
Opening the discussion with a speech that ranged from emperor Diocletian to Voltaire’s Candide, Brunswick Group’s head of public affairs, Jon McLeod [pictured], explained that Brexit was one of those moments where the page of history turned but it was still unclear what would be on the other side.
Theresa May’s former director of legislative affairs, Nikki da Costa, who is now senior counsel at Cicero Group, provided insight into the goings-on at Number 10. She suggested that it would now have become ‘exhausted’ and ‘defensive’, unable to adapt to the changing climate. She argued that the last few years had seen Parliament grow in strength, doubted that May would get her deal through and thought the chances of there being a general election this year were high.
What does this mean for the public affairs industry?
It’s clear that Brexit has already provided new opportunities for a sector that thrives on political uncertainty, from high levels of engagement with c-suite executives, as FTI Consulting’s Alex Deane observed, to relatively small companies needing to work with public affairs agencies for the first time, as John Higginson of Higginson Strategy has experienced.
However, there have also been problems. According to Gill Morris, founder of DevoConnect, practitioners like her who do something a ‘little bit different’ have suffered from ‘Brexit paralysis’. There are future opportunities too, Deane pointed to regulatory divergence potentially allowing the UK to become a world leader in new technologies, such as driverless cars.
Another important question was if the UK’s attractiveness as a base for international businesses would decline after Brexit. The Law Society’s Alexandra Cardenas felt that the UK would still be an attractive destination because international businesses valued the certainty of UK common law and its expert courts.
Dominick Moxon-Tritsch of Taxify said that the UK was currently a good environment for start-ups, but that Brexit risked this, while tax policy had already pushed some tech firms to choose alternative locations. He also expressed concern about the UK being left on the margins of pan-EU regulations.
Ketchum’s Jamie Robertson warned that there was a risk of global businesses feeling that they were being ignored or treated with hostility by the Government, though the ‘eccentric’ political system provided opportunities for public affairs professionals to provide their expertise to multinational businesses looking to invest in what is still an ‘essential’ market for them.
So far Brexit has been good for most public affairs practitioners, exposing the industry to a broader and more senior range of clients as businesses reach out for a helping hand in a time of adversity. However, the post-Brexit era will pose new challenges, from changes in the strategy of multinationals to getting to grips with an independent UK trade policy. Whatever happens in the coming days and months, it’s clear that ‘business as usual’ will not return any time soon.
written by Thomas Stevenson, Policy Researcher, Vuelio