PRO Insights – Responding to Political Change

Shimon Cohen

It never occurred to me to compare myself to Madonna. After all, she is American and I am Welsh, she is 64 and I’m not. It doesn’t end there but this could get boring. However, at a recent meeting of my senior leadership team at The PR Office, discussing plans for the next General Election (which is due to take place before January 2025), it occurred to me that not only have I been around for a while, but I too, like Madonna, have reinvented myself time and again.

When I made my first forays into the Public Relations and Public Affairs industry, we were living in Thatcherite times. The company I worked with then boasted of the closest of ties with Mrs Thatcher and her cabinet. I, however, was not at all what one would have considered political. I could not be. I had come from working at the Office of the Chief Rabbi. There we had to enjoy the closest of relationships with all political parties, and we did. Of course, we were closer in terms of interaction with the Government of the day, but it would have been extremely foolish to be closely aligned with any one party. I managed our government relations and public affairs work by knowing the political system of the country and advocating for the Chief Rabbi’s causes.

Then, when I then began working at a Public Relations firm, my knowledge of politics stood me in good stead. Of course, I knew some people in Government, but many of my colleagues were closer to individual ministers and advisers than I was. Yet as my teacher, the late great Lord Jakobovits, taught me, recalling the ancient advice of Psalm 146, “Do not rely on nobles, nor on a human being” I busied myself, not obsessing about becoming friends with people in high places but by being as good as I could at advocacy. For me, it was about what I was charged to present and promote, regardless of the partisan beliefs of whoever sat opposite me. This strategy proved invaluable, making my lobbying work robust against the dramatic changes of the political tides.

When Prime Minister Thatcher was replaced by John Major, I moved seamlessly to the new Government, as a straight-talking advocate for my clients. The late great Lord Young of Grafham, another of my esteemed mentors, and whose memorial I attended this week, used to remark, “It’s easier to do what you want to do if people think well of you.” I took this to heart too. It may be why, at the end of the 90s, when Labour came to power, I was able to continue my work as a lobbyist, advocating for my  into the Blair era, and founding The PR Office during that period.

My first Public Affairs clients were within an array of sectors, ranging from real estate to transport to agriculture. It did not matter who was in Government. The PR Office did not depend on old friendships and undisclosed contacts within one political party, but instead on forthrightly advocating for our clients, openly and strongly. I had to understand the changed landscape to continue my lobbying work, despite political upheavals. This proved true over the years. After the Conservatives came to power in 2010 and during the coalition period, I was still able to advocate consistently and successfully for our clients.

To be sure, I do not mean to suggest that well cultivated personal contacts are not needed in Public Affairs work. Of course, as I have written elsewhere, relationships are crucial. However, these relationships should be the result of our advocacy work, and not the catalyst. Friendships and close ties are earned and strengthened over years of advocating and lobbying for our clients. Politicians and officials have built relationships with us and we with them, simply because of our straight-talking advocacy work, representing as we do key clients in various industries.

Our commitment to advocacy through presenting our clients’ positions and our extensive knowledge of the political landscape, regardless of the party in power, has proven to be a successful approach. It also has another, unique advantage: lobbying in the devolved governments. Our ability to advocate in Wales and Scotland, often led by parties opposed to those in the Central Government, has remained undiminished. Knowing the political system and advocating in a straightforward manner is what mattered, not whether we were friends with a specific Government minister.

In my view, as professional advocates, we should not overly obsess about which political party is in power. Instead, we should focus on our ability to advocate well on behalf of our clients. Following the guidance of my mentors, I have always believed in this approach: What you know has always been more important than who you know.

As we head towards the next general election and well after, The PR Office will be at the forefront of advocating for our clients. We will continue to do so regardless of whichever party is in power. We will not be looking to hire people solely because they claim party affiliation but will be looking to add to our number of skilled advocates, those with a passion for public policy and politics, as well as a passion for telling our clients’ stories. We believe that is what counts in this industry far more than secretive political friendships, and we are certainly willing to be transparent about it.


Shimon Cohen is the chairman of The PR Office.

About the Author: Drew Salisbury