How did you get your start in public affairs?
While I was an Executive Assistant to two Toronto District School Board Trustees, another Trustee, Bruce Davis, approached me about working at Global Public Affairs / Urban Intelligence. He positioned it as “everything you love about politics, but with less constituency work”.
It was a full circle moment for me as I had considered applying for the same position a few years prior, but admittedly I was too much of a snob about municipal affairs. From my very first day at City Hall to today where I lead the municipal affairs program at Hill + Knowlton Strategies, the municipal order of government remains where I enjoy working the most. The volume and complexity of issues on any given agenda alone makes it a fascinating place, then we add in the personalities.
Having worked in public affairs for since 2005, what do you like most?
Public affairs, and my life, has always been about people. The people I have assisted, those who I have worked for, sparred with, collaborated with and simply observed have had such a profound impact in shaping who I am and how I approach things. You discover what interests people, what compels them and what motivates them. These interactions have helped me continue to evolve as a lobbyist.
Beyond the people, working in public affairs allows you to contribute, directly or indirectly, in everyday life. As I listen to my family, friends or even strangers, I am constantly reminded how many aspects of day-to-day life we in public affairs get to contribute to.
This is most tangible in municipal affairs since municipal governments are involved in just about anything you can see, hear, smell, taste or touch. I can travel around Toronto and see developments, projects and policies that I have been a part of. It motivates me.
What skills do you think are most important for people have in order to succeed in public affairs?
I believe that the most important skill is curiosity.
Being curious about people. What compels them? What motivates them? What irritates them? How they manage power dynamics and interact with colleagues, media and constituents.
You should be curious about how concepts/politics/policies will impact people and organizations. Be curious about how processes or situations can be improved, altered or better utilized.
It is curiosity that compels us to read through the details of a staff report, media report or speeches for that “aha” moment that can assist your client.
What do you feel is the greatest challenge facing the public affairs industry?
We, as an industry, are afraid to tell our own story. By allowing others to paint our industry as villains, it has allowed unreasonable perspectives and restrictions to be placed on our industry, and it allows others who perform other “advocacy” roles to face less public scrutiny. It has also allowed this notion to flourish that “lobbyists” dabble in some sort of “dark arts” or only succeed because of “pay for play”. This cannot be further from the truth. There are bad actors in every industry; however, the lobbying industry at large needs to be a better defender of itself.
We would never tolerate this kind of narrative to be placed on our clients, but we as an industry are unsure how to combat the perceptions about the extraordinary work that we do and how we do it.
Is there a specific example where you made a significant difference for one of your clients?
There are several, but the one that stands out for me is my work with a Toronto hospital. The hospital was proposing a new campus and found themselves against a limited provincial approval window. Part of the application required approval from Toronto City Council. If the hospital was going to be eligible for consideration, Council approval need to be granted prior to the end of Council’s legislative calendar. There were only two meetings left before the municipal election break.
Ultimately the issue was that the traditional specifications for development applications did not easily translate into the requirements and/or language of the Ministry of Health and, further, those traditional frameworks and specifications did not accommodate the service innovations that the hospital was proposing for the new facility (fully digital hospital, wider hallways and elevators, etc). Some members of Council were using traditional development discussions (including public art contributions) or political battles to delay the process further.
With the help of the local Councillor, I brought together the key stakeholders from several City divisions, the hospital, and Infrastructure Ontario into one room and created a common understanding of the project and requirements. Following that, my team and I worked with several members of Council, the Mayor’s office and staff to address issues directly or to create a process for further discussions. We found a legislative path forward that would allow for City Council to give its consent to the project, and opened a constructive dialogue, without missing either the legislative or political window of opportunity.
At the groundbreaking ceremony the local Councillor praised our work. Telling the crowd and media gathered that without the interventions of the lobbyists, this project would not have been built. While I do not do this job for the praise, that was a special moment for me.
What two pieces of advice would you give someone looking to start a career in public affairs?
The most important pieces of advice I give to everyone, but especially in this industry:
- Be fiercely protective of your personal brand.
- Remember it is called government relations for a reason. Even if you have different perspectives, engage with people across the political spectrum. The political climates shift, always. It is critical to know how to engage and find common ground regardless of who is in power.
The political and public affairs world is a small community. How you generally choose to engage within the community is remembered and shared. It is important to remember that people who are your competitors one minute can be your collaborators, colleagues or potential clients the next.
You may change jobs, companies or even industries, but people will remember how they felt about you and will engage with you accordingly.
How has public affairs changed since you started, for better or worse?
The use of technology has changed so many aspects of public affairs. It has allowed for increased information flow with the proliferation of 24/7/365 media and social media channels. This changes how we track information and opinions, and how we distill information in an accurate and timely manner. It influences how and when we choose to engage.
Timelines are no longer focused solely on the 6 o’clock news or the front page of a paper. Information flows are non-stop. This seems daunting at times; however, it requires protocols for monitoring and managing issues throughout the day and night without burning through budgets or people.
Technology has changed how we manage our activities as public affairs practitioners. This includes the foundational work we often undertake on behalf of the client. Work such as conducting public opinion research, registering to lobby or applying for a building permit are now quickly in the public domain. These actions can easily become a tweet, a trending topic and a media story before your client is ready to discuss the project. It is important to factor in those possibilities into any tactical plan.
While technology gives us an extraordinary amount of information and perspectives, it is simply another tool to activate and motivate. It doesn’t replace human interactions and natural curiosity; it should augment it.