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Political party conferences and their PR value

Party conference season is in full-swing and this week’s Labour Party Conference has attracted PRs from both agencies and in-house teams. Gorkana asks attendees from FleishmanHillard Fishburn, MHP, Burson-Marsteller and London Communications Agency about the value of these events in PR.

Inevitably, party political conferences – with a range of key players from politicians and journalists to brands and organisations – should provide value for communicators. They are not only built on networking and are a great place to meet potential contacts and clients, they are also a useful way to ‘check the temperature’ of key political debates.

This week is no exception. Labour’s conference in Liverpool has showcased disparate views on how the party plans to get back in the driving seat and how it plans to raise the National Minimum Wage. Although, a deep divide within the party has left some comms experts stumped on how to take action.

Our agency attendees agree, however, that there are three key aspects of these events that provide PR value: proximity, informality and, of course, publicity.

Proximity

The value of party conferences depends on how much influence a party will have on policy, according to our public affairs experts.

Michelle DiLeo, director and partner, head of public affairs UK at FleishmanHillard Fishburn says: “The role of party conferences has changed over the years and the atmosphere of them waxes and wanes according to the party’s proximity to power.”

This is partly why Burson-Marsteller’s director of public affairs, Andrew Clark, is particularly looking forward to this year’s Conservative Party Conference, which takes place in Birmingham next month (2-6 October).

He explains: “We’re attending, and organising events, at both the Labour and Conservative conferences, and we’ll be keeping a close eye on the SNP conference too. Given the direction in which politics has moved in recent years though, the Conservative one is clearly the most important, and the one that clients most care about.”.

He continues: “Labour doesn’t feel quite as relevant as an opposition party conference should – because not many people believe they’ll actually form a government any time soon. And the LibDems aren’t very high on anybody’s agenda.”

For Jonny Popper, managing director at London Communications Agency, Labour’s London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, is a key point of interest for his policy recommendations.

Popper adds: “For [us] the most significant change is that we have a new Mayor of London, so as ever we are focused on the agenda of the new Mayor at the Labour Conference.  The Conservative party conference will also be particularly interesting as virtually the entire Government has changed, so we will hear from a new Ministerial team.”

Informality

The fringe events – a range of seminars, debates, workshops and receptions – are the best spot to begin discussions among clients, journalists and politicians. This is due to the events’ informal nature, which the agency experts say is the core reason to attend conferences.

DiLeo says: “Party conferences provide the one opportunity in the year where MPs, journalists, corporate and other organisations all share the same space.

“For clients the opportunities to have conversations in a less formal atmosphere are useful but the real value is in seeing politicians on their home turf- it helps them better understand the dynamic and politics driving the agenda, which in turn should inform how they engage,” she adds.

Popper explains that the fringe events provide the opportunity to better understand the direction of policy and to hear from policy makers and influencers first-hand.

He says: “Access to senior politicians and their advisers is far more available than at other times and that goes equally for everyone – party members, special interest groups and business.”

Publicity

The agencies’ public affairs experts also see value in holding events of their own highlighting their services.

Jonathan Lomax, head of corporate affairs at MHP Communications, says: “Our priority is to deliver value to our clients through our attendance at the party conferences. We provide a range of useful facilities to clients through the MHP Lounge, which is open throughout the conference for the use of clients and contacts, and the ability to provide on-the-ground insight into the workings of each conference is another important consideration.”

MHP has also built on its training offering which it provided at last years’ conferences, where its senior team of experts deliver sessions on digital, creativity and crisis communications. Lomax adds: “Due to the success of these sessions, we are now offering the same sort of events outside of conference season in London.”

FleishmanHillard Fishburn has been sharing insight from its US team by hosting a room for the Clinton/Trump presidential debate on Monday. DiLeo says: “As a global public affairs agency with access to Democrat and Republican experts in Washington DC, the US elections have been the focus of our attendance at party conferences.

“People who attend the party conferences tend to be obsessed by politics so we catered to the demand we knew there would be to watch the first Clinton Trump Presidential debate. Being host to a room full of excited politicos, journalists and clients for the debate has been great fun and allowed us to share the insight from our US colleagues,” she adds.

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