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Looking for a job in Public Affairs? Six questions you’ll want to ask at interview

It feels counter intuitive to write a piece on Public Affairs and job interviews, with Corona still raging across the globe and many holding on to their positions for dear life. Yet, for those that are having job interviews, or are starting out, I have compiled a list of questions you should definitely take with you during the interview. As seasoned veterans will agree, Public Affairs is one of the coolest jobs around (some say only rivalled by rock stardom)! [Truly!] Even so, if you start with the wrong organisation or are trapped in unworkable Public Affairs structures, it can be nothing short of a nightmare. Drawing on my own experience – and those of friends and colleagues –  I have developed a list of questions which should help you find your next great Public Affairs dream job … and dodge a Public Affairs nightmare.

Is there a Public Affairs plan in place?

The first thing you need to ask is: Is there a Public Affairs plan in place? Organisations with robust Public Affairs structures will have such a plan. Ask about the priorities and the goals of the plan. Has it been signed off at the highest level? How is the plan internalized? 

Some organisations will not have a Public Affairs plan. This doesn’t need to be a problem if you are assigned to make such a plan – but, where there is none, it is of paramount importance to get the mandate to design a PA Plan. Worrying signs to watch out for is when the organisation doesn’t have a Public Affairs plan and doesn’t deem it necessary to have one. Arguments like “we don’t have a plan, but we have a presentation” or “we don’t need a plan” are canaries in the coal mine. And as Brexit has taught us, in general it’s better to have a plan then not to have a plan.

In what department is Public Affairs situated?

The second question you need to ask is where within the organisation does Public Affairs sit? With Corporate Affairs? Is it within the communications department? 

Ideally Public Affairs is at a team or department close to the CEO or highest level of management. Having Public Affairs in the corporate communications department might work, but only if it creates synergies and isn’t assigned tasks such as updating the website or writing the newsletter. In general, Public Affairs needs to be able to cut across the organisation in order to inform the right person at the right time or gather the right expertise when needed. This will be an arduous task if it is tucked away somewhere near the basement of the organisation. So ideally, Public Affairs is located near top management where it has leverage, oversight and the availability of short lines to manoeuvre and act.

Will I have direct access/contact moments with the CEO?

Related to the previous question, but in a league of its own; will you have access to the highest decision makers in the organisation? This is important because you will be required to take external action and represent the company in the political arena. Without access to top management your actions will be weighed by managers which will only think about the opinion of the person above them. Meaning you will have to wait for approval and guidance from the upper echelons. And approval always comes late. In some cases, you will want the CEO to place a quick call to an MP or a MEP to weigh in on an acute political debate. It’s both difficult and ineffective if you have to go to different layers of management to ask the CEO to call a minister. Also, not giving you access to the highest decision maker in the office tells you a lot about the faith the organisation puts in either you or public affairs as a concept.

Does the manager I report to have any background in Public Affairs?

This is a tricky one. It helps if your manager has some knowledge and background in Public Affairs. This will avoid having to explain the concept and make the case for why we are doing this in the first place. It will make sure you are not asked to spend time and resources unrelated to Public Affairs. I know Public Affairs officers that spend a lot of their time making presentations for their director, because according to the director that’s what Public Affairs is all about! Uhm, no it’s actually not. However, there is also a drawback to this. If your boss knows a lot about lobbying, you also run the risk of being micro-managed. I have also seen managers taking over the files because it’s much more fun to speak to MEP’s and MP’s then to sit in at management meetings. I myself had amazing experience which runs against the advice I just gave you. One of the best managers I ever had didn’t have any experience in Public Affairs. Non, whatsoever. But he was a great enabler and trusted me. I guess you will need to find out if the person managing you is supportive and what his/her vision of Public Affairs is. So, asking for his PA credentials is not a bad plan, one way or another.

What degree of freedom will I have to organise our Public Affairs?

I knew a lobbyist who was obliged to note every meeting in an excel sheet, along with the reason for the meeting. This doesn’t work. Public Affairs is all about organizing coincidence. Be it casual encounters with political assistants, coffee with peers or the obligatory dolce far niente at parliamentary hotspots. An utter waste of time it seems to the outsider, the true masters of lobby know this is the beginning of insights heading your way or your emails being responded to with break-neck speed. A certain degree of freedom is then needed in order to organise coincidence and build the trust of your policy community. And have coffee. As coffee is to Public Affairs what 4-Stroke Synthetic Blend Motor Oil is to engines.

Is there a dedicated Public Affairs budget for small expenditure and events?

A lot has been said about money and lobbying. Media, NGO’s and diligent students have been quick to point out the huge lobbying budgets of big corporations. The mandatory lobby register of the EU has made it easy to find out how much companies spend. I would argue that money is not all that important in lobbying. However, when you do have some kind of budget to spend, it makes life easier – somehow lunches, coffees and small events need to be covered. So, in my view you should not find it awkward to ask if there is a lobby budget for these little things.

Milos Labovic is the author of EU Superlobby: Winning in Brussels

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