20 years on, Scottish public affairs is more integrated than ever
In 1999, it all seemed so simple. A newborn Scottish Parliament and its 129 fresh-faced new MSPs assembled in a new environment which gave oxygen for Scottish political debate like had not been the case for, well, 300 years or so. It was, and remains, a much more accessible Parliament than was the case elsewhere in the UK, but was very straightforward – a political environment bringing sharp focus to Scottish political debate.
Political stuff happened in Parliament – public affairs professionals monitored Parliamentary proceedings and captured all that needed to be known about what was happening politically, and understood the entirety of developments affecting their particular interest area.
Today, not so much.
Who now can say that following debate inside Parliament can provide the full picture. Yes, it’s the national focus for debate, but you get the sense that it is now part of a wider more fluid range of discussion and the edges of politics, the press, social media and community campaigning are more blurred than ever before.
Making an impression on Parliament now often needs concerted effort by campaigners on a number of fronts. The range of issues in front of policy makers these days means that to make an impression, to leave a footprint on the policy landscape at all, requires creative use of a number of channels. The policy debate is more integrated with traditional media than ever before, with rival views openly challenging each other in newspaper columns as much as in the chamber.
MSPs are more connected than ever before – remember that when first elected MSPs probably received four letters from constituents for every email that pinged into their inbox. (Note for younger readers, a “letter” is a piece of paper which has been written or typed on – yes, I know, don’t laugh). Responding to community campaigning on social media, and aligning with campaigners’ objectives is now part of everyday life in parliamentary offices. And if you can’t follow, or support a local campaign, MSPs will start one, hoping for press interest and a focus in Parliament.
Whether Parliament itself is seen to be leading or following debate in the press or online hardly matters anymore – they are clearly now demonstrating a communications landscape that is more integrated than ever before.
One of the best recent examples is the inspiration Amanda Kopel’s campaign inside and outside Holyrood to see the introduction of “frank’s law” and an end to the exclusion of free personal care for those under 65 who needed it. Was that a community, issues based social and media campaign, or was it a Parliamentary process. Frankly it was both, and these days active change in the Chamber requires both.
For public affairs professionals, whether working client-side or in agency, this change has profound implications. Only the most backward facing organisations will organise (or budget) for public affairs and media relations separately. The most forward facing PA professionals are upskilling their media contacts and planning, as well as grasping the massive potential of social campaigning in helping them deliver their objectives.
If your job requires an understanding of the political landscape in Scotland, you’d better be spending as much time on the streets, and online as you do in the Garden Lobby.
Public affairs can be pigeon-holed no longer, at least not if it is to be successful.
Peter Duncan is a Director of Message Matters