Category Archives: Public Affairs

Reflections on a lifetime in campaigning, public affairs – and changing the world

It’s not often someone can lay claim to have played a role, in no small part, in changing the world – and to a life whose record can provide such a rich set of reflections from which students of PR, communications and public affairs can learn so much – but Des Wilson is such a person.

Campaigner (with thanks to

Campaigning legend Des Wilson

I remember hearing from him at my first ever major political public meeting in 1988.  It was in the illustrious setting of the Farnborough Community Centre (almost as glamourous as the setting for my first music gig in 1978 – that was Blackbushe Airport, but it was Bob Dylan, both local venues to my parents, but I digress).  Des was taking part in the hustings for the first presidential contest of the then Social and Liberal Democrats, alongside the leadership contest between Paddy Ashdown and Alan Beith.

Farnborough Community Centre

Farnborough Community Centre

As ever, I didn’t back a winner.  Despite having previously been the Liberal Party’s president, he didn’t win that contest (the party seemed to think that if we had an ex-Liberal leader, we had to have an ex-SDP president) – but it didn’t matter.  By 1992, Des returned to a role much better suited to him, running Paddy Ashdown’s much lauded General Election campaign, for which he won a PR Week award for outstanding individual of that year.

It is one of the reasons I am personally so excited that the PR Fraternity, in conjunction with the University of Greenwich Big Picture series have secured Des Wilson to speak on campus this week over 25 years later.  In fact, I was dumb-founded when I heard that he had accepted our invitation – such a major player, such a shifter of opinions.  He’ll be reflecting on the lessons of decades of campaigning and public affairs experience – but I’m sure he’ll have something to say too about the current campaigning tactics of the Liberal Democrats since he (and I) long vacated that particular pitch.

Des will be speaking at the University of Greenwich on Wednesday 12th March, from 5.00-7.00pm.  If you want to join us, register for a place/ticket here:

Campaigning legend Des Wilson shares stories from his years delivering change

Campaigning legend Des Wilson shares stories from his years delivering change

In case you need reminding, or were born too late to know, Des helped set up the pioneering homelessness charity, Shelter, becoming its launch director.

In 1983, he became chairman of Friends of the Earth.  Also during that decade, he took a lead role in the campaign that led to Freedom of Information legislation, and launched the Clear campaign that successfully removed lead from petrol.

On the back of his work for the Liberal Democrats, Des became director of public affairs for Burson-Marsteller, and subsequently, director of corporate and public affairs for BAA from 1994-2000.

Throughout that fifty year career, Des also had a career in journalism, numerous other positions in public affairs and campaigning, and served on numerous boards in the public sector, such as the British Tourist Authority, and Sport England.


Des is the latest in the series of high profile guest speakers secured by the University of Greenwich’s student-run PR Fraternity this year, whose members include the students of the BA (Hons) Public Relations & Communications, and the MA Public Relations.

Having recently welcomed Mark Borkowski; Megan Carver (who shared her wealth of experience with The Outside Organisation, and within the music industry); and Andy Parfitt – the remaining two speakers after Des will be MD of PR Squared, television and celebrity publicist Polly Ravenscroft, and head of PR for Sky One, Tessa Matchett.


Embarrassing affairs

Last week was the International History of PR academic conference, hosted by Bournemouth University.  It boasted an amazing array of topics, covered by some of the leading names in the field whose books and journal articles I have used during the last six years in which I have been teaching, but didn’t dream I would meet.

The history of PR is too easily entwined with propaganda, when it could just as easily be associated with activism, such as the Suffragettes

One of those was Karen Russell, associate professor at the University of Georgia, and editor of the Journal of Public Relations Research.  She gave a keynote address, encouraging us to ‘embrace the embarrassing‘.  She was referring to those names in the history of PR (Bernays, Ivy Lve, Barnum, etc), because only by doing so might we actually start to look around these figures, and beyond them.  As Jacquie L’Etang pointed out in her keynote address, we are allowing these figures to dictate what the history of PR is, as if there was no public relations activity going on throughout the rest of history between the times of Ancient Greece (at the birth of Rhetoric), and the American Revolution.  We jabe allowed them to ‘spin’ their own role as creators of PR.

In modern day public relations, one of the most embarrassing corners of our profession for many due to negative headlines is that of Public Affairs.  The spur of professionalisation was one of the drivers that moved fellow PR lecturer Sarah Roberts-Bowman and myself to develop to the new CIPR Diploma in Public Affairs, which we will be delivering for the PR Academy from September.  It is not a ‘Westminster Explained’ type course, but is instead designed to put Public Affairs in a wider theoretical framework, and provide space for practitioners to reflect about their work in a Masters level environment.

The Thick of It's Malcolm Tucker, continues to act in a not too professional, yet utterly entertaining fashion

Part one of the Diploma looks at the trends and challenges facing the political and public policy landscape.  As well as political communications and the nature of campaigning and decision-making, the course brings in perspectives on the nature of power, democracy, pluralism and the ‘public sphere’.

Part two of the Diploma looks at the art and science of lobbying and campaigning, through the psychology of campaigning, how to influence decision-making, messaging and the media, the role of political marketing, the concept of relationship management, moving from channels to conversations, dialogue and discourse – and finally, ethics and codes of conduct – probably the biggest issue of the moment as the new Coalition Government (and the industry, in the shape of the UK Public Affairs Council, bringing together APPC, CIPR and PRCA)  looks at the role of lobbying in the ‘new politics’ and considers what form of regulation is most appropriate for the profession.

Part three of the Diploma puts public affairs into the context of managing organizational reputation, including its link with issues and crisis management, CSR – and stakeholder theory.

The project is assessed through a 6000 word research project, for which candidates are prepared for research philosophies, methods and techniques in a fourth part of the Diploma.

There will be some skeptics about the whole idea of having such a qualification.  We have consulted widely around the industry, and had a warm welcome to it when we have taken people through it.  As with the CIPR Internal Communications Diploma which was launched last year and proved extremely popular, it is seen as a way of helping to professionalize public affairs, and a perfect step for personal development.  And for those industry figures who don’t think you can teach such things, we want you to be part of the delivery of this diploma.  Any theory is only effective if it is delivered in the context of professional practice, and we want top embrace as many people as possible to share their expertise as guest speakers or mentors, and create a real community of professional development.

*Labour MP Bessie Braddock packs a punch against singer Frankie Vaughan! Much of the terrain may have changed over time, but have the principles?

Back to the International History conference, it was great to meet the author of one of my favourite journal articles, which I use to give undergraduate students a taste for diving into a wide range of journals and articles to inform their final year research.

McGrath, C. (2006) “The ideal lobbyist:  Personal characteristics of effective lobbyists”, Journal of Communication Management, 10 (1) pp.67-79

At the conference, Conor McGrath was presenting a paper arguing for a re-writing of history, presenting the first UK parliamentary lobbyist as Charles Weller Kent, working for the NFU between 1913 and 1916.  Prior to McGrath’s paper, accepted wisdom has been that Lt. Commander Christopher Powell was the pioneer of lobbyists in the UK.  He set up the parliamentary consultancy Watney and Powell in 1928.

If McGrath’s research proves correct, it would mean that we would nearing the centenary of the profession in 2013 – and an ideal time just ahead of that for the CIPR to launch a Diploma in Public Affairs, so that when it comes, we no longer have to ’embrace the embarrassing’ in order to celebrate it!

[*Credit for the fantastic Bessie Braddock photo to the Pool of Life blog on the Liverpool Daily Post site]