Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Five ways to build a career in public affairs

Starting out in public affairs can be daunting. Many of those in senior positions seem to be ultra confident and have a string of business and political contacts. For those entering the industry it is not always clear what they need to do get going and to build themselves a career.

The good news is that there is no defined A to B career path and as a result there is plenty of scope for mapping out your own direction. This can change over time and pivoting is not unheard of as new opportunities arise.

Here are five lessons which, if followed, will help to establish a career in public affairs.

Networking – there is no alternative but to get out there and start to meet people. There are whole books dedicated to the benefits of networking but for those starting out some of the best contacts you will make come in the early years. People move around consultancies and go in-house and can often be a source of work, advice and insight. Make sure you have a good online presence, especially on LinkedIn, as this will help you to keep track of contacts.You also need to know what is going on in the sector so read your way around the industry – familiarise yourself with PR Week, Public Affairs News and PubAffairs (amongst others).

Understand Parliament – there are a number of core skills that are needed but fundamentally good public affairs advice is based on knowing and understanding how Parliament works. Understanding the system and the processes shows you know when to get involved and what is expected. Any audience, internal or external, will expect you to have a firm grip on this.

The commercial side – just speaking from personal experience, on starting in the sector I had little real knowledge and understanding of how business works and the commercial realities of working for an organisation (public, private, NGO or charity). On the job experience is essential but make efforts to stretch your experience out across the organisation and try to get a handle on the financial side as well. For those in a consultancy, the earlier you can get involved in pitches and tenders the better but don’t feel constrained to stick to the research or generation of ideas, explore pricing, charge out rates, and costs more generally.

Be different – try and set yourself apart from others in the industry. That may be easier said than done but consider your background, skills and experience and also the issues or areas that you are particularly interested in. Think about it in terms of a personal PR plan rather than a Heseltine-style back of an envelop career plan. Business and marketing plans are standard for organisations, just apply the same type of thinking to yourself.

Think ahead and recognise your weaknesses – training and development comes in many different forms. Do not be afraid to ask your employer for help and support from the outset. Placements and secondments are a fantastic way to gain experience and widen your network. If your boss really does know all the people they claim then they should be able to help set something up.

There are lots of free sessions, lunchtime seminars etc out there to help. It is also important to sign-up to membership organisations such as the CIPR or PRCA. They not only provide help, guidance and support but they also have some great training and events.

All this can seem like a lot to take on but as public affairs becomes a more crowded market place and the competition for good roles intensifies it is those that make the conscious decisions and efforts early on in their career that will do best.

Too often new entrants are not helped and supported as they could be. But it is not all up to the employer, the individual needs to take responsibility as well and drive themselves on. It will mean they can be in public affairs for the long term.

This blog was written by Stuart Thomson, Head of Public Affairs at Bircham Dyson Bell. You can find him on Twitter at @RedPolitics

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