Public Affairs Career: So Long, Parliament!

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    Nov 13, 2013
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Public Affairs Career: So Long, Parliament! Photo by Tim Connolly

In the second of this two part series, Oliver Campion-Awwad, a former Parliamentary Assistant and Public Affairs and Communications Manager for the Advertising Association, offers some detailed advice to those choosing to leave Parliament and enter public affairs careers.

Take it away Oliver!

Your Public Affairs Career

Your  public affairs career is about to begin – imagine the scene – you found the right job and its day one. Congratulations!

More likely than not, you will notice a sharp contrast between where you used to work, and the office you are now sitting in.

An MP’s office is much like a small, highly idiosyncratic business:

HR is a mess. Nobody counts holiday time, and it’s a good thing the IPSA puts your wages in your bank account or else they’d probably never arrive. Your job description bears no resemblance to reality.

Aims – Your organisation’s goals extend about as far as what your MP feels like doing. This might not even involve getting re-elected.

Colleagues and managers – You’re used to sitting in an office by yourself with as many interns as you can afford to take on for back up. Aside from your MP (and she is barely ever there), there’s no-one higher up the chain to tell you what to do. There is a management gap that you are expected to fill using your own initiative

Communication - There is a lot of lingo, but once you have gotten your head round the difference between Third Reading and Report Stage, you’ll notice that everyone does tend to speak to each other using normal human language. Your boss might be a member of the Shadow Cabinet or the Privy Council, but if he is acting like an idiot you will probably tell him to his face.

Socialising – You can wear what you want on Fridays. It’s sometimes like being at university – lots of people your own age to socialise with, a bar in the building (just like halls!), and a culture of staying late and having a few drinks.

If your new job is in even a relatively small office, you can expect much of this to change.

HR – Your contract and job description are important legal documents that HR and your manager(s) will draw up rather than being pulled off the shelf from IPSA and ignored by your boss. They may well schedule formal reviews for pay and performance, and will likely have established metrics to judge your performance against.

Aims – Your company or organisation, and the department you work in, will have a specific reason for existing. There will be a clear group of people you and your colleagues are accountable to – your CEO, your clients, your board, your subscribers, whoever. And unlike the electorate, these people won’t automatically support your work because of the colour of your rosette, and they won’t give you five years before they ask you to make yourself accountable to them.

Colleagues and managers – There isn’t just one of you in your office. This means a different working environment, but it also means you are going to have to internally network in a way you may not have done before. You need to know what those people do, what they need from you, and vice versa – after all, the public affairs manager is often one person trying to represent the entirety of an organisation and its activities to the outside world. And rather than minimal direct management, there will likely be a number of more senior people, all of them more than happy to requisition your time or get offended if you take a course of action without clearing with them first.

Communication – You already have some work to do when you arrive, as you will need to learn the terminology used in the sector, industry or business you are now paid to represent (not to mention its history and the detail behind its key issues).On top of that, people will start sending you emails asking for things to be “actioned by COP” and all other kinds of unnecessary corporate language.

Socialising On the bright side, it’s highly likely that you and your colleagues will spend every Thursday and Friday in the pub together, just like in Parliament. This is Britain, after all. But get used to the idea that your career in public affairs means you are moving into what will likely be a very new environment, driven by a kind of corporate culture and etiquette that doesn’t really exist in Parliament.

Be sensitive to your new surroundings and be prepared to adapt quickly.

In Public Affairs Careers, No-one Gets it

Outside of the Westminster echo chamber live millions upon millions of people who don’t understand a thing about politics and don’t really care.

If you are working in an ‘in-house’ role rather than consultancy, you will soon discover that lots of these people now work in the same office as you.

Your anecdote about having lunch with the Parliamentary Undersecretary for Paperclips might make you the envy of other lobbyists, but your colleagues will stare blankly.

On the other hand, what little your colleagues do know about politics clouds their perception of your work.

They might be convinced that getting names on that EDM is absolutely paramount, and pay no heed to your suggestion that the publication of a consultation on outlawing your industry is perhaps a bit more important.

They won’t necessarily understand which relationships are worth nurturing and which aren’t.

It can become grating when the MD asks why you are bothering to cultivate a relationship with a Select Committee member, or when the Chairman of the Board asks when you’ll be getting them a meeting with the Prime Minister.

Regardless, it is very important to keep your colleagues in the loop, even if they don’t understand politics, Parliament and government as well as you.

As noted above, internal networking will be paramount.

When you do something well, don’t be scared to contact those around you and explain what you have achieved and why it is important.

Equally, you won’t know a thing about your new organisation when you join.

So make it your mission to educate yourself on who you represent. Your colleagues will be a goldmine of experience and knowledge. When MPs ask about your clients, your membership, or your charity’s work, make sure you know everything inside out.

Don’t make it up if you don’t know. “I’ll send you a follow up note” isn’t ideal, but it is acceptable.

Money is…Important?

Your wages as a parliamentary staffer, while meagre, are pretty much guaranteed until the next election, unless your boss is caught in flagrante and forced to resign their seat, or in the rare instances where they decide to give you the boot.

Parliament and the country are unlikely to go bankrupt anytime soon, so if the will to pay you is there, the money will be, too.

You might not have Scrooge McDuck or Premier League footballer earnings but, on the flipside, job security is generally much higher than average. A parliamentary office will have a limited budget to spend on things like computers, but beyond that you are rarely undertaking a major project where the MP is holding the purse strings.

Across all spending, your MP will be under pressure – mainly from the payroll and the need to keep expenses down – but their funding will be guaranteed so long as they are in their seat.

Not so in the corporate world, especially not the modern world of austerity we currently inhabit.

Wherever you work – a major corporate, a consultancy, a charity, or a trade association – your CEO will be stressing about the bottom line.

Your office may be in rude financial health, or it may find itself failing. All of this will affect the climate you are in. Which means you need to understand who is pulling in the money that pays your wages – be it clients, members, or whoever else foots the bill – and what they need you to do in return for your livelihood.

Conversely, public affairs work costs money, and you will have a budget to help facilitate this work – everything from mousemats and mugs with your logo on, to a card for sticking drinks on, to major events in Parliament, will require a budget.

You may find yourself put in charge of budgets, or at the very least asked to help make decisions about spending and procurement.

Depending on what line of work you are now in, you might find yourself with much more money to throw at projects than you have been used to. This, in turn means engaging with your boss and/or your accounts department on financial issues. Remember that whenever you have an idea you think your new organisation should adopt, one of the first questions you will be asked is what implications it will have for budgets.

Your experience so far may extend as far as photocopying the receipt for that banana your MP bought on the train from the constituency and sending it to IPSA, so be prepared to step up your game.

Did Oliver miss anything? Let us know in the comments!

Enjoyed this article? Why not read the first part too – giving you all the essential groundwork for a successful public affairs career.

Author's Profile

Tim Connolly is a public affairs professional and the publisher of Public Affairs Jobs HQ, a magazine for people in public affairs and policy jobs with all the latest industry news and gossip

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