A Career in Public Affairs
Public affairs consultants use their understanding of the political system to offer political and public policy advice to companies, trade associations, charities, not-for-profit organisations and overseas governments.
Keeping abreast of political developments and sourcing key information from personal contacts, a range of media sources and political intelligence and monitoring are key aspects of the job.
Public affairs consultants also identify key stakeholders in the decision-making process at European, national, regional and local government levels. They then work to maintain relationships with these individuals and to assist your clients to promote and protect their interests effectively.
Public affairs consultants are often referred to as lobbyists, but, unlike lobbyists, their work is more wide-ranging.
- A strong interest in, and enthusiasm for, politics, policy issues and current affairs
- Excellent research and communication (written and oral) skills
- The ability to assimilate, analyse and summarise written material quickly
- Time-management skills and the ability to work to tight deadlines
- Interpersonal skills and the ability to organise and prioritise your workload
- The capacity to work on your own initiative and to relate well to colleagues, as well as clients and other contacts
- Excellent listening skills, as well as the ability to take an impartial view
- IT skills, as many information sources such as Hansard are online. You’ll often have to prepare documents and PowerPoint presentations for clients and potential clients
- The ability to inspire trust and confidence in clients as they may be making commercially-sensitive decisions, based in part on your advice, and will therefore need to trust your judgement and discretion
Public affairs consultants typically work either for a political consultancy, acting on behalf of a range of clients, or in-house for a charity, pressure group, private company, public sector body or professional/trade association. In-house consultants may form part of a communications function/government relations department. You can also work for a government agency or in local government.
Public affairs consultancies may be independent or part of a larger PR or communications company.
Some consultancies specialise in particular areas, such as monitoring and intelligence gathering, while others provide a ‘full service’. Similarly, some consultancies focus on particular industries, whereas others provide a generalist service.
Several of the larger PR agencies have a specialist public affairs or government relations division.
- Account Executive: £23,000
- Account Manager: £33,000
- Account Director: £50,000
- Associate Director: £60,000
- Director / MD: £ 70,000
A new entrant into a public affairs consultancy spends a large proportion of their time researching monitoring and responding to requests for information. However, face-to-face contact with clients will come quickly. Initially, this is through attending meetings, briefings and conferences alongside more senior staff, and this increases as their career grows.
Within consultancies, there is generally a clear structure and opportunities in place for career progression. A typical career path is from account executive to account manager, heading up a small team within the consultancy and being responsible for a group of clients.
The next step may be to a senior account manager or account director and then associate director, handling the consultancy’s work for a range of clients, providing strategic advice and developing new business. At higher levels, the ability to develop and win new business, as well as servicing existing clients, becomes increasingly important.
Moving into an in-house public affairs department as a public affairs manager or policy adviser is possible. Some may move into full-time political roles, such as working for a political party or as an adviser. These moves may be permanent or may be used to further develop experience and contacts before returning to consultancy.
It’s generally easier to start in a consultancy role and move into an in-house position, rather than vice versa, as consultancies are keen to employ staff with previous experience in a consultancy environment. In-house teams are generally smaller and you may need to move organisation in order to further your career. In an in-house role, there are more opportunities to specialise in a particular market and industry in an in-house role.
Although this area of work is open to all graduates, the following subjects may increase your chances:
- modern European languages
- public relations
- social policy business or management.
Although many public affairs consultants have a degree in politics, experience in and around politics and communications, together with personal qualities, are more important than your degree subject.
Entry with a HND only is unlikely due to the competitive nature of the profession, although those with political and campaigning experience may be successful.
Although a postgraduate qualification isn’t essential, some entrants have a Masters degree in a subject related to politics or public affairs.
There are various routes into public affairs with some joining the industry straight from university and others joining from a related profession later on in their careers. Many public affairs practitioners have a degree in politics or a closely related subject but it is also advantageous to back this up with work placements or internships. These can be taken in MP/MSP/MEP offices, with political consultancies or in a campaigning organisation. For those who support a specific political party, a good way to gain experience is to volunteer for the party, supporting a local candidate or working in their national communication teams.
Many placements or internships are not advertised publicly – work out a list of some organisations you’d like to work for and target your covering letter and CV accordingly. Do this early, and if possible, offer to work unpaid for a few months. The most important thing is to get your foot on the public affairs ladder.
Many large political consultancies have graduate programmes that last for six to twelve months. These introduce graduates to the basic political processes, the forms of communication which are used in politics and teach client relationship skills. Graduates will often be expected to conduct research for more experienced consultants which is an excellent way for them to work across several sectors and decide which areas or issues they are most interested in working on in the future. Most consultancies may expect candidates to have some relevant experience, either through work experience or from involvement in student politics.
Public affairs practitioners can be tasked with a wide range of activities. Some may specialise in media relations or campaign management whilst others will work across the spectrum. Some of the activities and skills a practitioner would be expected to learn include:
Lobbying: Practitioners may need to influence stakeholders on specific policy or legislation proposals. They will devise strategies on who to lobby, on what issues and advise at what stage in the legislative process to get involved.
Monitoring: It is essential that any public affairs work is based on the most up to date information and so monitoring is essential. Usually conducted by junior practitioners, statements and releases from Parliament, Whitehall, European Institutions, political parties, local government, public bodies, think tanks, pressure groups, debates, committee inquiries, legislation and regulation will all be monitored regularly.
Media management: Public affairs practitioners often carry out what are seen as traditional PR activities but with a political focus because, in many cases, the media can be a significant stakeholder to the organisation. These activities include writing press releases and articles, researching, copy writing, producing annual reports and managing databases of, and building up relationships with, media contacts.
Organising and attending events: Practitioners may organise events in order to provide opportunities to meet with stakeholders. Initially the relevant stakeholders will need to be identified, as will the issues that the organisation needs to bring to the attendees’ attention. You will also invariably attend parliamentary committee meetings, party conferences, related seminars, conferences, Government Departmental stakeholder meetings, All-Party Parliamentary Groups and other events.
Providing information to stakeholders: It is essential in public affairs that practitioners are able to convey information to stakeholders in a concise, efficient and honest manner. This can be done through submissions to government consultations, answering letters from MPs/MEPs, writing internal and external briefing papers, and producing leaflets and newsletters or by holding one-to-one meetings.
Political marketing: The government is a huge procurer and many corporate companies are keen to sell their products to the public sector. Public affairs practitioners may be used to raise the profile of a company in order to increase the company’s chances of making the government a client.
Networking and Contacts: Public affairs practitioners need to be confident at networking and able to ‘work a room’. There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to networking. It is very much down to the skills of the individual, but these skills can be learned by anyone. Largely, it is about having the confidence to approach people and strike up conversation. One of the things that you take from one job to another is your personal and professional contacts, and in many cases these might be intermingled. It is important to build up a network of contacts within and across different sectors.
Specialist recruitment agencies advertise vacancies on their websites. It’s also worth making speculative applications to consultancies. Contact details for lobbying and public affairs consultancies are available from: