Thursday 5 November 2020 10:11 am

The polls failed again, and blindsided businesses are crying out for better corporate intelligence

Eliot Wilson is co-founder of Pivot Point and a former House of Commons official

So Joe Biden will be the 46th President of the United States. Or Donald Trump will squeeze home (though, at the time of writing, that seems less likely). 

It has been a nerve-wracking 48 hours for anyone who watches US politics — and one of the reasons for that is that commentators and pollsters got it pretty badly wrong. A Biden victory was the consensus, but talk of a “blue wave” and a clean sweep of the White House and Congress by the Democratic Party now looks like a rather malicious joke.

The reaction of the business community was predictable but justified: help. Ever since Brexit became a destination on the UK’s national journey, companies across the world have cried out less for this or that provision in a trade treaty or particular regulation and more — overwhelmingly — for certainty. 

Read more: How the Democrats threw away their shot to topple Trumpism

Businesses need to plan, and they need to know the landscape into which they’re coming. So they create plausible scenarios and fit their strategies to them, and they want — need — to be proactive.

This is why public affairs consultants exist. In-house or agency, there are thousands of men and women employed with varying CVs and backgrounds, paid solely to tell chief executives and boards what is going to happen, and perhaps why. 

If PR can be nebulous at times, public affairs is the will o’the wisp: even the practitioners can’t always explain what they do or how. But in a sense it doesn’t matter: whether it’s detailed analysis of the assumptions underlying a government white paper, or a few tidbits offered in confidence over a glass of wine in a dimly lit bar, what really matters to businesses are the results.

Of course, there has to be some leeway. PA consultants may be deeply ingrained with Westminster or Beltway culture, they may have an address book to die for, but they are not professional seers, nor are they expected to be. Margins of error are allowed. 

That said, this has not been a good few years for the prognosticators among us — Brexit, Trump, the 2017 General Election and indeed the one that followed — and it seems time to think a bit more carefully about how companies can get better intelligence.

Like most commercial transactions, the easiest solution is to throw money at it. There’s a reason that, say, Global Counsel can command hefty fees and Lord Mandelson’s presence as its chair is not unconnected. There aren’t many doors which the Prince of Darkness can’t open or many ears immune to his whispers. Likewise, Declan Kelly and Doug Band, two of the founders of New York giant Teneo, are hardwired into Washington and Wall Street.

Another development might be hyper-specialisation: any comms company will always try to cover as broad a portfolio as possible, and it’s never easy to turn down work. But perhaps public affairs needs to think a bit more carefully, focus more on smaller sectors (minerals, or infrastructure, or media regulation), and really get its consultants to dig in, so that they know every nuance, every detail, every actor on their chosen stage. Finance and high politics will always be the glamorous venues, but there’s room for less showy specialisms.

One option which (I suspect) will not be popular with my fellow flacks: more structured training and development. The world of comms is often resistant to this, and public affairs in particular is an arena in which you play on connections, reputation, and the gift of the gab. Those are essential, and will get you far with your stakeholders from whom you are gathering intelligence. But just as the SIS no longer sends agents into the field on the basis of a decent 2:1 and a strong forward defensive stroke, so too we need to think about what consultants can learn on the job, as well as what skills they should be hired on in the first place.

I never pretend to have all the answers, but a change is a-comin’. Blindsided businesses are entitled to ask why they have been in the dark and taken by surprise so many times of late, when they pay people to keep them informed. 

The public affairs people among us should take this opportunity to reflect, as see how they can up their game. They are, after all, companies’ eyes and ears.

Read more: Trump or Biden: Who would be better for the UK?

Main image credit: Getty

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