Christopher Holz is a Principal at Campbell Strategies and has been a public affairs professional since 2000. He did his Masters and undergraduate degrees at the University of Toronto, and was also an OLIP intern at the Ontario Legislature. Chris served as a senior staffer at Queen’s Park from 2005 to 2008 for the Minister of Energy, the Chair of Cabinet, and later the Minister of Finance. – More info is available at: www.campbellstrategies.com
How did you get your start in public affairs?
I was exposed to the industry when I was an OLIP intern in the late 1990’s, as many firms and organizations sponsor the program. My OLIP experience changed my entire career trajectory. After completing my Masters (and my thesis), and after a brief stint in the Federal Public Service, I joined a Toronto-based firm in 2000 – which was very early. Within three years, I became Vice President of the firm.
Having worked in public affairs for over 17 years, what do you like most?
Every day is different – which I really enjoy. In part, it has to do with the variety of clients, the variety and complexity of issues, the people I interact with – all of it makes the work interesting, sometimes challenging, and always rewarding
What skills do you think are most important for people have in order to succeed in Public Affairs?
I have two answers for you: one that is a skill, and one that is a character trait – because I don’t think you can teach it. Research and writing (in various forms) are critical skills for public affairs professionals – much more than people realize when they think about what a lobbyist does, or watch one on film or television. As for character traits, I think the most important is the ability to listen effectively.
What do you feel is the greatest challenge facing the public affairs industry?
The public has almost no idea what it is we actually do, and if they do think they know, their perception of us is negative – somewhere between a shyster lawyer and a criminal mastermind. It is often fun trying to explain it at cocktail parties. But in all seriousness, the public perception of our industry is a challenge, and we collectively need to do a better job at educating the public, political decision makers, public servants, and other stakeholders as to what it is we do, its legitimacy in an open and transparent democracy, and the role that we all play in public policy development.
Is there a specific example where you made a significant difference for one of your clients?
Sometimes as public affairs professionals we are afforded the opportunity to play a role that can make a significant difference not just for a client, but in the lives of real people.
My colleagues at Campbell Strategies and I acted pro bono for the Canadian victims of Thalidomide, which was a prescription drug in the early 1960’s that caused severe birth defects in babies, including missing limbs, missing or misshaped organs, etc. It was an incredibly challenging and emotional campaign. We were able to orchestrate a unanimous vote in the House of Commons within a week of our campaign launch (a rare feat), generate sustained coverage from media – in particular the Globe and Mail, and the campaign resulted in a funding support package of over $180 million that will provide tax free, indexed funding support to Canada’s remaining Thalidomide survivors for the rest of their lives. I’ve had the pleasure of working on many different projects for clients, but this will be the most important assignment I will have ever worked on in my career (and I’m still young!).
What two pieces of advice would you give someone looking to start a career in pubic affairs?
Political or public service experience is often viewed as the basic entry point for this profession, yet there are many, many talented professionals who do not have this and are outstanding professionals in this industry. And there are some others that have this, and nothing else. I think the ability to network in a natural way, is one piece of advice – as it is something we all do every day. I think the second thing is persistence – some people that you may email for a coffee meeting may not get back to you right away, which doesn’t mean they are not interested in meeting, just that they are busy.
How has public affairs changed since you started, for better or worse?
There are more firms, more associations, and more attention to governments and regulator decision-making today than there was 17 years ago. That is neither a good or bad thing, but it means the sector – particularly the consulting sector – is far more competitive. There are new tools that exist today, that we did not have 17 years ago – particularly as it relates to social media, as a tool for recruiting people, or to monitor the development of an issue, or the evolving views of a decision maker.