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The PRCA has announced the shortlist for the fifth Douglas Smith Prize for best young public affairs practitioner in the UK. PubAffairs will be publishing the essays of all six shortlisted candidates in the run up to the 2017 Public Affairs Awards on Thursday 14th December at which the winner of the Prize will be announced.

The first round of the Prize asked candidates to submit an essay entitled “What impact does a minority Conservative Government have on the public affairs industry?”. The candidates have been interviewed on their essay and their wider work on the 28th November. Below is the entry submitted by Liz Moore, Account Manager at PLMR.

You can also view the entries from Sam Evans, Cavendish Communications; Rhiannon Sanders, The Whitehouse Consultancy; Natasha Silkin, PB Consulting; Philippa Alway, Lodestone Communications; and Tanyka Davson, Weber Shandwick.


What impact does a minority Conservative Government have on the public affairs industry?

Over the last seven years, the UK’s political sphere has been in a state of constant flux. The Coalition Government of 2010, the Brexit referendum, and the subsequent departure of David Cameron, fostered a culture of uncertainty within the country, and indeed, ambiguity about the nation’s place in the EU and around the world.

Theresa May’s decision to call an early General Election in June of 2017 was planned as a reinstatement of stability in the system, but the surge of support for Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, only served to highlight the temporal nature of public opinion and understanding. The youth vote was a huge factor in the 2017 election, and while the Conservatives still held the largest number of seats, the almost 10% swing towards Labour showed an appetite for real change in the UK political landscape.

Because of this, it has been necessary for public affairs professionals to develop a talent for foresight like never before. The General Election, and the Conservative’s fraught partnership deal with the Democratic Unionist Party, as well as UKIP’s Nigel Farage taking centre-stage in the Brexit campaign, showed us that all parties in the UK political system have relevance. Knowing how these parties are moving politically, and fostering contacts across a wide spectrum, is now critical. Without a majority in government, every debate becomes essential, and every MP’s opinion could make a difference in the decision-making process.

No one had expected this change. In fact, the polls on the night before the election suggested a strong Conservative victory, and May’s decision to call the election was done in the confidence of a returned majority to ratify her premiership. This has meant that the opposing Labour Party has been neglected by many in the public affairs industry. While no one was paying attention, the party was changing, bringing in new leadership, new faces, and new ideals. This new movement of Labour is proving difficult to crack, with an entirely new agenda, and a reluctance to engage with businesses and lobbyists. Opening up these discussions will be critical, but it will require an approach far removed from the tactics of the last seven years.

Another issue to consider as part of this political shift is the evolving channels of discussion. The open platform of commentary provided by social media and online sources has enabled a far wider audience to become engaged in the political debate, especially younger members of the general public. You only need to look to Twitter and groups such as Activate UK or London Young Labour to see how the platform has galvanised this demographic to discuss the issues that affect them.

This in itself has meant that politicians and their parties – and indeed, clients - are taking more notice of the digital sphere when it comes to influencing public opinion. The Liberal Democrats and Labour’s use of Google AdWords to promote their own messages at the top of search engine results for “Conservative Party Manifesto”, played upon the growing dissemination of information online, taking advantage of the tools at their disposal to effectively hijack the Conservative campaign.

The predominance of social media influence has also driven an entirely new strand of public affairs campaigns. Professionals can now mobilise a large audience and direct them towards a common goal through the use of platforms like Twitter and Facebook. An example of this was a recent petition to Parliament, demanding that they debate the potential for mandatory mental health teaching in schools; the PLMR campaign was run across a number of channels, but with a strong focus on social media to direct a target audience directly to the online submission form. A number of key influencers in the education and health sector were called upon to support the campaign, massively improving the reach of the petition, ensuring that it reached its goal before the dissolution of Parliament.

This is not to say that traditional media channels are becoming any less important. In fact, a recent YouGov poll found that ahead of the election, people were more inclined to rely on broadsheet newspapers and television for details of parties’ policies. However, establishing a balance by understanding the demographics and potential uses for all channels is becoming more and more crucial to a successful campaign. Labour’s Twitter profile has attracted over 540,000 followers, well outnumbering the Conservatives’ 300,000; in the landscape of a minority government, and the growing prominence of Labour amidst younger voters, getting involved in these channels will be essential for everyone.

Without a shadow of a doubt, the minority Conservative government means that public affairs professionals have to work harder than ever before to remain ahead of the game, well-networked, and connected to the issues, and people, that matter. Recent events, whether it’s the victory of the Leave campaign in the result of the Brexit vote, or the significant shift in public opinion towards Labour, have proven that we never can predict with absolute certainty any outcome of a debate, and planning for the unexpected is essential. Not only is a Corbyn premiership well and truly within the realms of possibility, we also have to be prepared for an entire spectrum of potential scenarios. Will Scotland call a second referendum? Will our national industries withstand the effects of Brexit? Will our government have changed again in the space of a year? Preparing for all given outcomes of these situations, even if only in theory, can ensure a quick response to any potential upheaval.

Through an understanding of the changing nature of communications, as well as the broader tools we have at our disposal, there is an immense opportunity to influence wider policy. We have access to more insight about the social and political landscape of this country than ever before, and being able to interpret and exploit this information could be the spark that takes a campaign from general awareness to real, tangible change.