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It’s not only members of the Science and Technology Committee who know how to use tech…

“Which app?”. Before March this was a phrase unheard of in our interactions with politicians, but now it’s as common as a sign-off.

If you had told me at the start of the month that within 4 weeks we would have hosted a virtual workshop for over 20 people on Webex, spoken to politicians and civil servants via Zoom and conducted political training via Skype for Business I would have politely smiled and said “that won’t work”. How wrong I was. 

Public affairs and tech have synced quicker than it took John Bercow to intervene during PMQs. Zoom is currently being trailed for virtual evidence sessions by select committees and meetings now seem quicker, and easier, to organise.

Since 2015 daily business papers have been available on the House Papers app which, as Lord Brownlow’s recent review says, “is really convenient… and saves paper”. But it seems that our industry is only now reaping the benefits – and there certainly are benefits. It’s likely that in the post-Covid age, whenever that is, this move to embrace the tech will be here to stay.

I’m the first to say I’m not a natural with tech so, for those like me who are finding their way, I wanted to share some learnings from the last few weeks:

  • Own the meeting tech yourself. Don’t use a third party’s details unless they are on the call.  If the tech goes wrong (which it does) it’s a lot easier to sort yourself than having to go through a middleman';
  • If you have a big meeting, test the tech out. It might seem a hassle but trust me – it’s crucial;
  • Remember, no one can see what’s not in the camera view. This isn’t a license for you to wear pyjamas (don’t be that person) but think about the notes and prompts which could support your conversations;
  • Allow more time than you think you need.  At a minimum, factor in 5 minutes at the beginning of a meeting for joining the call;
  • Like normal, people tend to run over when speaking, but video conference doesn’t convey a stern stare or a quick look at your watch in the same way.  We’ve found it useful to have an internal chat running simultaneously (Whatsapp is handy if you are sharing your screen) to remind people when to stop, and when to share thoughts;
  • Pause more often to allow others to talk. Silence isn’t always a bad thing;
  • Be creative. We recently hosted a workshop which ran breakout sessions and despite the nightmare I had the night before, it worked really well!

I’m loath to call this new wave ‘Digital Public Affairs 2.0’ or even worse, ‘Virtual Public Affairs’. Rather I think we should refer to this as the new ‘business as usual’, and embrace its arrival. Not only does it make everyone’s lives easier, including for those we are trying to engage with, but it provides clients based abroad the opportunity to engage with UK stakeholders without unnecessarily increasing their carbon footprint. So let’s embrace these new ways of working now they are upon us. Just make sure you know where that mute button is!

by Sara Williams, Associate Director