Corporate affairs, consultancy and campaigns – post-Covid

Our business is built on relationships, knowledge, and our ability to deliver results. These relationships are rooted in trust. And trust, like reputation, is cultivated, tested, and built over time.

A perennial debate within public relations is whether we ought to ditch the term ‘PR’. It’s true that it’s loaded with negative connotations and misconceptions. I can see why some think it ought to be consigned to the dustbin of history. But those who think we should reposition our industry as the ‘communications’ business are dead wrong.

Public relations and public affairs are broad disciplines that do so much more than merely communicate. The person you’re attempting to connect with is far more likely to receive and heed your message if you’ve established your credentials with them, better still if you’ve built real rapport. Why would a political decision maker in Westminster or Whitehall respond to a message from you, if they don’t know who you are, who you represent? Equally, with trust comes the confidence that you wouldn’t contact them with something that wasn’t relevant to their brief or their interests. Why should that busy political editor bother reading your pitch, unless you’re already on their radar? They won’t, and they shouldn’t.

We prioritise establishing relationships of trust at Nudge Factory. We view them as vital, yet this process is often taken for granted, overlooked, even denigrated. I’m proud that my clients often become my friends. To some, that will seem overly familiar – a return to the old boy’s club way of doing things. I disagree profoundly.

The best consultancy/client relationships emerge when you care passionately about a client’s business, their sector, and, crucially, the members of their team. You can’t fake sincerity. You can’t fake authenticity. You’re either fully in the tank with a client, or you view them as someone that pays the wages. If you’re in the latter camp, hang up your boots and go home – our profession isn’t for you.

We live in an age of radical transparency. The social media era has already delivered the single most seismic changes to the way we live and work since the industrial revolution, and the pace of change is accelerating. Academics started writing about ‘context collapse’ when social media began taking off more than a decade ago. The concept is simple: you can no longer pretend to have different values and priorities in different contexts, or when interacting with different audiences.

Practically, that might mean a recruiter rooting through your twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook to see what sort of person you really are before shortlisting you (or not). Open social media accounts also enable researchers to evaluate someone’s personal and political perspectives in granular detail, thus enabling an approach to have a finely tuned angle, based on evidence and insight.

Whilst the social media age has supplemented our approach to lobbying and corporate communications, some voices claim it will soon eclipse the well-trodden paths of networking and face to face meetings. They’re also wrong (am I being more contrarian than usual today?).

Anyone who’s had to sit through endless awkward ‘virtual’ meetings on Zoom, Microsoft Teams or Google Meets can verify my claim. They can be awkward, stilted, disjointed. People talk over one another, get distracted easily (and obviously) and lack the nuance of a physical gathering.

There will certainly come a time when virtual reality and augmented reality become so mainstream that technology will facilitate more engaging and fluid dialogues. But that time isn’t yet. Innovators and early adopters are diving in, but it will take mainstream adoption and critical mass to attract the level of investment to (a) make the software and hardware good enough to recreate the real world and (b) sufficiently affordable and accessible.

Unless Covid-19 has heralded a new era in which we get buffeted with pandemic after pandemic – a dystopian, but real possibility – we should soon return to something like normal. For denizens of Westminster, the Terrace will be open in a couple of weeks or so – although Strangers’ itself will remain shut, serving remotely-distanced MPs, journos, lobbyists and the like al fresco only. Amongst the other Westminster watering holes, the Red Lion isn’t likely to open until late July, but the Marquis of Granby re-opens alongside a great many taverns across the country on the 4th July, followed by St. Stephen’s Tavern on the 7th. Nature is healing.

Why my seemingly incongruous detour into the realm of ale houses? Simple. Informal meetings happen there. Conversations, both on and off the record, chance encounters, catching up with old friends, introductions. All of these seemingly innocuous moments feed into a repository of goodwill, knowledge and, crucially, relational capital. 

I’m not a luddite, although I can occasionally feel violent toward unresponsive or insubordinate pieces of tech. My head isn’t in the sand, and I’m not shunning digital engagement. My sense, though, is that the noisier the environment, the less effective the channel or platform will be. That’s why MPs tend to ignore most forms of clicktivism. That’s why you’re unlikely to persuade someone to shift position on twitter. If we want to influence, it has to be in contexts which emulate real world environments. We need to reach beyond filter bubbles and echo chambers.

At Nudge, from time to time, we invite a small clutch of clients, prospects, journalists and influencers to a private breakfast to hear from a speaker with particular knowledge and perspectives. This might be an MP or other influential figure in media, politics or business. The benefits are that our stakeholders get to meet one other, the speaker, and some of our team – and they leave with tidbits of knowledge, from interesting anecdotes to commercially useful information. Could we replicate that experience in a virtual meeting? Not really, at least not to the full extent.

However, the online arena lends itself well to different uses. We’re in the process of helping a group of MPs form an All Party Parliamentary Group for an emerging industry in a potentially highly regulated sector. There’s great enthusiasm amongst the Members of Parliament to ensure that this sector maximises its societal and environmental impact, and we share their enthusiasm. The prospective APPG members will be competing with one another for market share, so they’ll be highly guarded about commercially-sensitive matters. But they share a common interest in persuading the government to do three things: look favourably on the sector as a whole, recognise its potential benefits, and rebuff those who may seek to stifle its growth by introducing unnecessarily constraining secondary legislation, or draconian regulation.

Getting political, commercial and not-for-profit stakeholders together on a call with a highly focused shared agenda and clear updates will work well. It’ll be both time-efficient and cost-effective, and it means that the parent companies, from the West Coast of America to the furthest reaches of Asia Pacific will also be able to dial in, time zones and sleep patterns permitting.

We have an opportunity as corporate affairs professionals to be at the forefront of this evolution, and lead the charge when it becomes a revolution. We’re the ones grappling daily with replicating the face to face environment, whilst staring at our screens. We’re the ones who know how to get the best out of a conversation – actively listening, establishing connectivity, and, at the oh, so obvious end of the spectrum, looking into the camera with warmth rather than off to the side in a shifty manner (N.B. Ian Blackford).

In my experience, existing relationships have been enriched during this period – but forging new ones has been slower. When it’s genuinely good to hear from a client, or when I feel the need to get in touch with someone just to see how they’re doing, I sense I’m on the right track. Online advocacy is here to stay, it’ll become increasingly important and effective, and we must adapt and innovate to make the most of it. But old fashioned face to face meetings, in whatever context, will remain the primary driver of relationships, rapport and trust, until we’re thrust into a dystopian/utopian [delete as applicable] Black Mirror-esque world. At least, that’s my take, right here, right now.

Remind me to blog again in 24 months. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.

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