Why we called our agency “Public First”

When agencies are founded, it’s traditional to give them an abstract name (Portland, Milltown etc). Some say such names are typical because they’re easier to sell, others because they’re easier to market. We went in a different direction and settled on a name which explains our approach to research and communications. And we’re reminded why we did that again today, as we digest the news about Government support for the ailing Flybe Airline.

Why did the Government choose to support Flybe? After all, not only did they know they’d face a backlash from Flybe’s competitors and allegations of breaching state aid rules, but they also knew they’d face criticism from free market minded backbenchers and activists. They will surely have done it because they will have thought about the public first.

Having won a large majority off the back of the votes of working class and lower middle class voters in provincial England, and having based their entire campaign (and governing) strategy on the case for Brexit and an “independent” economic policy, it was extremely unlikely that they were going to let a British business well-known to their new voters go to the wall.

They will have looked at the airports Flybe operates from (for example, Humberside, East Midlands, Leeds, Manchester and Newcastle), and thought about the economic policy pledges they made in the election just a few weeks ago. They will have thought back to their claims that Brexit would be good for jobs. And they will also have considered the implications of upsetting people’s holiday plans. And together they’ll have said that there wasn’t really a hard decision to make  it all. (On this latter point, rich commentators in London often forget how integral many people’s annual holidays are to their daily lives; not only do they look forward to these 2 weeks in Spain or wherever each year, but they save for them all year too).

This is not a new phenomenon. Time and time again, politicians make decisions based on electoral calculations. This is why we are called Public First. We believe that the best way for businesses to approach their conversations with Government – and indeed to plot their public affairs strategy – is by thinking about the parties’ voters and how the electoral map is changing. With this in mind, those that rely primarily on traditional public affairs and lobbying are woefully misguided. There’s a role for lobbying – for example in explaining businesses’ technical case to non-experts in Government – but it should play at best a secondary role to understanding and changing public opinion. Public affairs professionals should spend their daydreaming hours looking at their coloured map of Westminster constituencies – wondering how politicians will be thinking about those constituencies north of Bedford.