TRICK OR TREAT
Contending with a government absorbed by Brexit, the UK’s public affairs industry faces challenges, roadblocks and opportunities. Brittany Golob investigates the impact of a shifting government reality on organisational influencing and campaigning
All Hallows’ Eve will perhaps be D-Day for Brexit. Whether the result is a trick or a treat for businesses operating in the UK remains to be seen. The facts, though, are clear. The government is absorbed by the dealings of Brexit and lack the capacity to tackle other agenda items. With Parliament effectively closed to business, public affairs professionals have to be trickier themselves, creatively seeking opportunities to achieve their objectives with regards to government relations. But what isn’t clear is how this fallow period will affect future dealings with government and the interests of corporations during the expected Brexit transition period.
According to Nikki da Costa, senior counsel at Cicero Group and former director of legislative affairs at the Cabinet Office, non-Brexit legislation is being tabled until after Brexit deliberations are concluded. Speaking at the PRCA’s spring conference on public affairs, she said that while the Cabinet Office has little capacity for shifting its focus to strategic matters at the moment, it has a small capacity for addressing policy in non-Brexit areas if MPs are the ones leading the charge.
That has been the experience of public affairs professionals operating on behalf of third sector organisations. While Brexit is effectively dominating the landscape, the ongoing rollout of Universal Credit means there is a necessary governmental focus on benefits, a focus charities with interest in that space are actively addressing.
Geoff Fimister, a public affairs professional currently working with the Disability Benefits Consortium (DBC) – a coalition of around 80 charities focusing on disability, health and other benefits-related issues – says the political landscape has changed recently. “We’ve had two things happening simultaneously: we’ve had the government’s loss of its overall majority and we’ve had Brexit. The two of them taken together have really paralysed the party landscape. There’s very little going on in Parliament other than Brexit related things; partly because Brexit is taking up all the time and partly because there’s a limit to what the government can enact because of its loss of majority.”
However, that doesn’t mean public affairs professionals are giving up. “There’s a lot more focus at the moment on conversations with civil servants and trying to discuss with them the specifics of a variety of detailed issues. The big issues just aren’t going through Parliament,” Fimister says. That opens up a lot of avenues for creative public affairs practices. One way the DBC has capitalised on this is by focusing on key benefits issues, like, for example, campaigning for the addition of a disability benefit to Universal Credit. By launching a major research report and presenting it to MPs from all parties and engaging with the Department for Work and Pensions, the DBC has been able to communicate its objectives to decision makers. While this doesn’t necessarily ensuring it will make the Government agenda, it is raising the issue for Labour and Lib Dem MPs who may in future be in the position to make change and for civil servants working in benefits.
Fimister says it’s necessary to have good relationships with all the parties, particularly with the governing party’s backbenchers, as they are likely to be the ones vouching for policy change at the Cabinet level, as da Costa also suggests.
Beyond this, there are opportunities for subtle conversations across the Parliamentary landscape, but also for bigger, bolder campaigns that grip the national media and encourage widespread engagement around a key issue. Fimister points to the research launch as taking a proactive to step to suggesting change, while also reacting to previous decisions. That kind of two-pronged approach may be key to cutting through the Brexit landscape.
But the challenges still exist, even with a creative, proactive approach. A public affairs professional from a leading global charity says Brexit is definitely affecting public affairs, particularly with regards to scheduling uncertainty in Parliament. “You constantly ask yourself, ‘Should we wait to do this until after such and such a date?’ only to find that as soon as that date passes, there is another new emergency. There is now a feeling across the sector that we can’t keep postponing, so now we’re forging on regardless. But it still means you could organise an event or campaign activity to find it completely eclipsed by some new Brexit drama,” the public affairs professional says.
That uncertainty is echoed across the industry. “Brexit has just paralysed the whole timetable,” says Tim Jotischky, head of reputation at the PHA Group. The reality of that situation means that industries like gambling, in which Jotischky has clients, are being pushed to the back burner. The paralysis of government means there is little scope for companies in gambling, for one, which make up such a small percentage of the government’s total focus, to cut through, he says. That leaves public affairs professionals without a reasonable timescale for planning campaigns or influence strategies.
“There’s an understanding that we are living in extraordinary times,” Jotischky says. He suggests that businesses have lost control of and understanding of the time it will take to achieve their objectives. However, because this affects the entire economy, stakeholders within businesses are understanding of the difficulties and delays. Further challenges are posed by the constant changes to government and the Cabinet. This can present opportunities to build relationships with new people about different topics, however it also means positive relationships that had been fostered over previous months or years are now lost.
But the show must go on. “You’ve still got to engage with government, with the whole process,” Jotischky says. The charity communicator agrees, “Achieving cut through is harder, but it just means you have to be more strategic, don’t rely on lazy scattergun tactics. You have to keep up to date with what’s going on and think about how to influence the people that matter right now and be flexible to change. But at the same time, building a cross-party group of MP allies will ensure your campaign has a bit of stability.”
The challenges posed by Brexit have constricted the possibilities for engagement with the government. But many are finding Brexit to be a time of opportunity. For Jotischky it’s a horse race. His team is trying to gauge the outcome of the Parliamentary power struggle and of Brexit itself so that it might build relationships now, to ensure its bets are hedged when the race is ended.
“There’s very little going on in Parliament other than Brexit related things, partly because Brexit is taking up all the time and partly because there’s a limit to what the government can enact because of its loss of majority”
Fimister too finds that the time for quiet lobbying is nigh, allowing important work to carry on despite the legislative standstill.
A sense of rolling with the punches pervades. Yet, optimism is there as well. Despite Britain’s potential removal fro the EU bloc, Britain will remain important on an international economic level. Because of the UK’s advantageous positioning, its rule of law and its regulatory leadership, said Jamie Robertson, MD of corporate reputation at Ketchum at the PRCA conference, Brexit will not mean an end of business or of public affairs in Britain. It offers businesses the opportunity to consider public affairs at the board level, where previously it may have been relegated to external communications. Robertson advises, “Make sure that decisions made at the reputational level are going to have the right impact commercially, especially over the long term. There’s still a lot of belief in the UK among business leaders.”
For Alex Deane, senior MD at FTI Consulting, Brexit is a true opportunity for public affairs. Demand for public affairs has increased, he says, and agencies are benefiting from the greater need for businesses to understand governmental decisions and influence future legislation. He says government is still open to the ‘voice of business,’ thus arguing for increased focus on influencing and relationship development, even during the legislative standstill.
Da Costa agrees, urging business to not stand complacent, waiting for the time at which Brexit deliberations are concluded. She adds that “this is not a time where you just take a punt,” with regards to public affairs. The business critical nature of the economic landscape means the issues businesses lobby for must be well-considered.
Then, when the lobbying doors are open once more after years of tabled and backlogged decisions, Parliament will face an overload of policymaking post-Brexit. If in the current public affairs landscape, it is difficult for businesses to cut through, engaging with decision makers in that context might be even tougher.
Beyond that, the public affairs profession may face changes of its own too. London is the economic capital of Europe, but headquarters are already being shifted out of the UK toward Dublin, Amsterdam, Brussels and the like. Companies like Panasonic, Sony, and several Japanese firms are already moving out of London. Sony said in a statement, “We can continue our business as usual without disruption once the UK leaves the EU. All our existing European business functions, facilities, departments, sites and location of our people will remain unchanged from today.” Public affairs firms may find themselves engaging less with international and EU policy and more on UK-centric policy. This will, as Robertson implies, require a change in skillset among public affairs professionals.
The market certainly hates uncertainty and Brexit poses the biggest of uncertainties, particularly for global businesses who have no historic or heritage-based ties to the UK. Operating out of an EU city makes sense, as it will continue to be one of the largest trading blocs in the world. In fact, Institute of Directors research from early this year found that around one-third of businesses were considering relocation or had already begun the process as a result of Brexit. But that’s not exclusive to international companies. British bank Barclays has shifted its European headquarters to the Irish capital, moving some employees over from London and hiring more to staff the new offices.
Economics think tank New Financial carried out research into the financial services industry in March. It found that over £800bn in assets is being shifted out of the UK as a result of Brexit. That amounts to 275 firms seeking alternatives to London. Not only is that damaging to the UK economy, but for public affairs professionals operating across Europe, EU or not, the landscape is now far more fractured. The report states that Europe is now a multipolar world, “No single financial centre has dominated these relocations. Many firms have deliberately split their business and chosen separate cities as hubs for different divisions, and we identified more than 40 firms that are expanding in other EU cities in addition to whichever centre they have chosen as their main post-Brexit hub. This redistribution of activity across the EU has wound the clock back by about 20 years.” There may, in turn, be a significant refocusing of activity away from London and toward Frankfurt, Dublin or elsewhere as the exodus continues.
Unsurprisingly, uncertainty prevails. Halloween may offer some answers, but it may be another masked moment promising clarity and failing to deliver. In whichever situation the UK finds itself on All Saints’ Day, public affairs will still be facing months if not years of altered reality for engaging with and influencing the government.