Nicole Foster is the National Chair of Equal Voice and has served the past two years on the Equal Voice National Board of Directors. She has been an active volunteer during that time, including chairing the Communications committee as well as the historic Daughters of the Vote program.
How did you get your start in public affairs?
When I was in high school I got to attend the Forum for Young Canadians in Ottawa. That exposure to parliament was a life-changing experience that triggered my passion for politics. I volunteered on campaigns back at home in BC and eventually made my way to working on the Hill in Ottawa. My last role on the Hill was working for the Hon David Anderson when he was Environment Minister. When he was shuffled out of cabinet after the 2006 election, I was recruited into Global Public Affairs. It turns out that the most lobbied department in government is Environment.
Having worked in public affairs for over 13 years, what do you like most?
It is always changing! There are always new issues, new governments, and new clients. I’ve gotten to work in so many sectors on so many different issues.
I also love working with people who are passionate and engaged in what is happening politically – even if we don’t always agree. This work has given me the opportunity to meet some amazing people from across our country of all political stripes.
What skills do you think are most important for people have in order to succeed in public affairs?
High emotional intelligence and the ability to manage relationships well are key. Our work really depends on the ability to build trusted relationships with clients, colleagues and government stakeholders. No one wants to return your call if they don’t like working with you.
What do you feel is the greatest challenge facing the public affairs industry?
I think the most obvious challenge is the understanding of what the public affairs industry does. Starting out as a young woman in this industry, seeing the startled look on people’s faces when I told them I was a lobbyist was something I quite enjoyed. It usually led to a fun conversation.
But the emerging challenge is around social media. It presents a new way for businesses to start to think about risk. It’s not just about how consumers are engaging with social media but people in our business have traditionally dealt with decision makers in a more private sphere. It is important for clients to understand how decision makers are interacting with social media and what this means in terms of risk as well as the opportunity to use it as an effective advocacy tool.
Is there a specific example where you made a significant difference for one of your clients?
A lot of the work that we do with patient groups is really rewarding. We’ve been engaged with the epilepsy community for over 5 years and there haa been a lot of rewarding progress along the way. Just this month the Ontario government announced requiring school boards to provide individual care plans for these students to manage their daily medical needs – something that parents of children with epilepsy have been advocating for a long time.
What two pieces of advice would you give someone looking to start a career in public affairs?
You need to love working with people, but you also need to understand politics and business and how those two worlds inter-relate. You don’t need to have worked in politics, but if you don’t, you’re missing out on one of the most rewarding and intense learning experiences in your career. It’s an accelerated environment where young professionals get opportunities you would never have access to in any other workplace.
How has public affairs changed since you started, for better or worse?
Things are changing quickly in how and what we do. With the 24/7 news cycle and constant social media buzz, decision makers are more immediately accountable than ever before. More accountability and transparency are a good thing and it means that organizations working with government need to be more aware of that pressure as well. There’s an expectation that stakeholders do a lot more to influence public perception in a positive way when you are looking for a (sometimes difficult) decision from government. It really expands the environments you need to be effective in.
There is also so much information that is now publicly accessible. Whether it’s government documents, transcripts or contact lists there is a lot of information that is easy to access. It’s now more important that you can wade through all that information, find what is relevant and make sure you can answer the question, “so what?”