Party conferences are always fixed dates in the PRO team’s diary and present real opportunities to understand what’s happening on the ground. Indeed, a lot of preparation by the team goes into these conferences to ensure that we deliver the most value to our clients, getting real-time intelligence on the issues on which we are working – whether that’s an update on HS2, changes in social care policy or calls changing approaches to drug misuse.
In many ways, the 2021 Conservative Party Conference was my first big event in almost two years. I attended last year’s conference within the confines of my living room over Zoom, as the coronavirus continued to wreak havoc throughout the world. So, being able to physically attend this year, in my hometown of Manchester, was very exciting indeed: high-profile journalists from the country’s major news outlets and politicians converging speeches, schmoozing and discussions about policy.
Not only did I get to meet a number of journalists with whom I am in regular contact, but also many incredible organisations and charities effecting significant change in society. I also had the opportunity to speak earnestly with MPs and cabinet ministers. These informal one-to-one conversations in the coffee-lounge are always the most illuminating experiences for me. My usual interactions with MPs tend to take place in political or educational settings where there are specific tasks to be done or agendas to be addressed. Here, our conversations were more open-ended and marked with a real sense of empathy: how has your family been throughout the pandemic? What are your hopes for the future? How can we make things better? In fact, what I found most refreshing was how seamless my conversations with MPs and journalists were, having met with them, for instance, only two or three months earlier.
In between coffee dates with several news producers and reporters, I hopped in and out of conference halls and fascinating fringe events, which allowed for lively debate about some of today’s most pressing issues: safety provisions for care homes, police malpractice, disruption to the education system, the fuel shortage, the situation in Afghanistan, amongst many others.
Beyond that, I found the main conference hall something of a “media platform” rather than a venue for conferring. It was the place where the big speeches and announcements were made: “set pieces” to showcase insights, campaigns, projects, plans communicated through other means to the wider public.
The policy agenda has been set on so many key issues, but much remains uncertain – not least the economic recovery post-Covid. The challenge for us as PR professionals is now aligning with that agenda, but not being afraid to challenge and disrupt the political status quo. It was a great opportunity to navigate departmental change and find the new key figures relevant to our clients’ agendas. What is clear is that conference attendance remains an essential priority for the PR world, not an optional extra.
Drew Salisbury is an account manager at The PR Office.