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Public affairs: A strategic approach to building relationships with your communities of influence

A robust public affairs strategy enables councils to build effective relationships that survive people changes and provides greater opportunities for long-lasting success. Andy Sawford, Managing Partner of public affairs consultancy Connect, explains.

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Key points

  • A ‘hero’ leader is not essential for local public affairs success, but in the absence of one you will need a strategy.
  • The extent of joint working in local public services present many opportunities for joint, impactful public affairs activity.
  • Strategic communications, of which public affairs is a key part, is too important to be left to the communications team alone – or delegated upwards on the assumption the chief executive or senior leader will hold the key influencer relationships.

Local leaders need effective public affairs strategies and effective public affairs strategies need leaders. Public affairs is a term used to describe an organisation’s approach to building and maintaining relationships with key stakeholders, particularly those in the political or governmental sphere. It gives form and function to the essential networking that a local leader must participate in, from meetings with local MPs and community leaders, to discussions with Whitehall officials, sector leaders, the media, thinktanks and policy influencers.    

Public affairs strategies are considered essential, and are well resourced, in large private sector organisations, where it is a well-established function. In contrast, there are few local authorities or other local public service providers, such as health trusts, with a recognised public affairs lead.   In local government in particular, perhaps the approach and activities that public affairs pertains to seem so mainstream to how councils operate, that a clearly identified public affairs strategy might be considered unnecessary.    

There are many examples of public affairs success in local public sector organisations achieved without a defined public affairs strategy. The many years of networking and relationship building by Manchester City Council Leader Sir Richard Leese and former Chief Executive, Sir Howard Bernstein, contributed significantly to the transformation of the city. The late Sir Sandy Bruce Lockhart, former Leader of Kent County Council and of the LGA, was a consummate networker who despite being a prominent Conservative, built excellent relationships with the labour government of the day, winning investment and support for strategic projects such as HS1 and the regeneration of the Thames Gateway. Doncaster’s current leadership duo of Chief Executive Jo Miller and Elected Mayor, Ros Jones, have led by example in resetting the relationships and reputation of the once troubled authority.    

A ‘hero’ leader is not essential to public affairs success for local public service providers, but in the absence of one, you really will need a strategy. I have worked with local leaders who choose not to prioritise networking and external relationship building, preferring instead to focus on the nuts and bolts of running their organisation. That may be the right focus, depending on the circumstances. If this is the case, then your organisation needs a team approach to public affairs.  Strong relationships between your leaders and managers at different levels, can be more successful in the long term, than relying on a handful of relationships held only at the very top.    

There are other reasons too, why a formal strategy is beneficial. A public affairs strategy asks, and helps you answer important questions that make your influencing activity more successful and sustainable over time. For example, are you focussing on engaging with the contacts that you have, or the contacts that you need? People are constantly moving on, both from your own organisation, and from partner organisations, so your stakeholder map should be dynamic and multi-layered.   

Consider the example of a local clinical commissioning group. The current chief executive has good relationships with: NHS England, the chief executives of two local hospital trusts and the ambulance trust, the chief executive of the county council, the editor of the local newspaper and the health correspondent on local BBC radio. This is a strong base for your engagement, but what happens when the CCG’s chief executive moves on? The CCGs relationships, and public affairs activity will be fragile, and weakened for a time, unless they have created a structure for engagement that will survive people changes, and a depth to engagement that means there are multiple points of contact. A public affairs strategy would help to create structures for joint working, regular dialogue and partnerships that create the glue for your organisation to survive people changes. It would also identify roles for multiple members of your team, to establish and maintain networks, relationships and joint initiatives. Rope or cable made of many strands is stronger, it spreads the strain and creates greater tolerance for the failure of an individual strand.   The metaphor can be applied to any teamwork, and is certainly true of public affairs strategy. 

Networks and relationships create the greatest value where there is purpose and a mutual objective. The extent of joint working and partnerships in local public service delivery present many opportunities for joint public affairs activity. In the common example of a visit to Whitehall to request additional support or funding, a joint approach by a range of local public service leaders will be more impactful. Or if the public affairs objective is to secure investment in major infrastructure, then a campaign partnership involving public service leaders, the local university, local airport, and major local businesses, will be much more likely to succeed. 

A public affairs strategy creates a framework for engagement and campaigning over time. I have worked on campaigns for projects such as a new bridge, a new airport, and am currently working on a project to re-open a tube station. These kinds of objectives take many years, sometimes decades. They cannot depend on the strength of a small number of relationships, perhaps held by ‘hero’ leaders. They may need to weather major political and economic change, and still keep the objective in sight. To succeed, they will build over time, engaging more supporters, partners and advocates, so that ultimately they are delivered. HS2 and Crossrail are examples of this kind of success over time. In contrast, the recent decision by the government not to proceed with the Cardiff tidal lagoon power project, bears examination, as to what went wrong from a public affairs perspective.   

If you are considering putting in place a public affairs strategy, the starting point is clarity around what you are seeking to achieve. Examples include: additional funding; support for a new initiative or partnership; a ‘bid’, such as for city status or reorganisation; or to change perceptions. From here you should consider these key questions:

  • Who has influence? Audit and map your stakeholders, prioritising them around who has the greatest influence on whether you are able to achieve your objectives. 
  • What is your case/argument?  Develop your messages and winning argument, which can then be tailored to different stakeholder audiences. 
  • How will you reach them? You need an engagement plan that identifies how you will reach your target stakeholders, such as through one-to-one meetings and participation in conferences and events.
  • How will you resource the public affairs strategy? Who in your organisation will be involved, what role will they play, and which other organisations can you work in partnership with.

Strategic communications, of which public affairs is a key part, is too important to be left to the communications team alone, or to be delegated upwards from a press office that assumes the chief executive or other senior leader will hold the key political and influencer relationships. It must be a partnership between your communications professionals, who can help integrate and facilitate effective communications, including public affairs, and organisational leaders who should both contribute to developing strategies and plans, and play a direct part in delivering them. Perhaps there was a time when leaders of well-funded and monolithic local public services could create change by pulling managerial levers. However, leadership today is more complex, less directive and more about achieving influence. That is why you need to urgently put in place your winning public affairs strategy.