For as long as I can remember there has been a heated debate within the public affairs industry about the relative importance of knowledge and networks.
In essence, which is more important? What you know or who you know?
The issue first came to the surface in the immediate aftermath of Tony Blair becoming Prime Minister in 1997. The public affairs world was then generally Tory-inclined and there was a concern that the new political order would pose an existential threat. Of course, the smart consultancies had spent the three previous years hiring well-connected Labour Party advisers so the threat didn’t actually exist!
Contacts plus info
The truth of course is that knowledge and networks are equally important.
It is all very well having a great diary of political and media contacts if you don’t know how to use them. Likewise, there is no point being a great thinker if you don’t know anyone.
The truth is that when someone is quoted saying that the future of the industry lies in strategic advice what they are really saying is : “I don’t know anybody!”
A tad cruel perhaps but entirely true.
It is the combination of knowledge and networks which delivers real commercial advantage. The ability to get to the heart of a public policy issue, understand all the various commercial implications and then connect with the four or five key political decision makers is what makes an experienced public affairs practitioner literally worth their weight in gold.
In truth, there are fewer such practitioners nowadays compared to when I first joined the industry. Not totally sure why but I suspect that like the House of Commons the public affairs industry has been dumbed down. To quote dramatist WS Gilbert : “When everyone is somebody then no one’s anybody.”
In the opera Capriccio, the final sublime masterpiece of Richard Strauss, the Countess spends the entire opera weighing up the relative importance of words and music in the form of a poet and a composer. Which is the more important? Of course, the issue is never finally resolved. The opera ends when dinner is served…
Do your homework
The only purpose of public affairs consultancy is to deliver commercial advantage for clients. All the meetings, briefings, dinners and whatever else are only justified if they are part of a well-thought-through strategy. The strategy will only be successful if the critical political figures are identified, briefed and then persuaded. To the argument which states that anybody can ring a politician, the answer is very simple. That is true but they aren’t required to answer their iPhone. That is the value of an influential political network. The practitioner is able to speak directly to decision makers and opinion formers.
So the debate about knowledge and networks is rather silly and the public affairs industry finally needs to move on. In the weeks and months ahead, public affairs practitioners will have the opportunity to shine and dazzle in some of the most influential boardrooms in British business. Chairmen and chief executives will listen to their every word on Brexit and the forthcoming general election. I just hope their response isn’t (to misquote WS Gilbert): “This particularly rapid unintelligible patter isn’t generally heard and if it is it doesn’t matter!” Brilliant ...
Written by Peter Bingle, founder of agency Terrapin Communications
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