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Representing and advocating for people in need through public affairs

Originally published: February 2018

MissionBox speaks to Kate Oliver, who has worked in public affairs and policy roles since 2014. She’s currently senior campaigns officer at Charities Aid Foundation, which aims to build a stronger charitable sector by running campaigns, influencing government and encouraging people to give to good causes.

How did you get into this field?

I’ve always been motivated by wanting to do things for other people — even at school I was doing fundraising and bake sales. I’ve also always been interested in politics.

I knew there were laws about what sick people or homeless people are entitled to — and wondered: who influences those, outside the government? Who represents and advocates for those people? When I got to university, I finally realised that’s what public affairs is. It was exactly what I wanted to do and it would allow me to contribute to charitable causes in a way that used my skills.

I started at Macmillan Cancer Support in 2014 as a public affairs intern, nine months after I graduated. They have a really well-structured internship scheme, with great support. Then, because there was a general election on the horizon, a role opened up within the team and I was able to progress from intern to public affairs assistant. I did that for around six months.

Was this a typical way in to this kind of role?

I’d studied politics at uni, which is pretty integral to these kind of roles. Before Macmillan I’d also done work experience with a local politician, and to develop my skills, also in PR.

It is quite a rigid profession, typically recruiting young graduates who’ve studied politics, worked with their MP and so on. I think we could afford a bit more diversity — in the charity sector generally, but also in these roles. When you’re talking to decision makers, you want to reflect different opinions.

What other experience has shaped your career so far?

After Macmillan, I went to a public affairs agency for a year. It was the only time I’ve spent outside the charity sector and it challenged me in a completely different way. I was learning about lots of issues, lots of sectors, lots of different stakeholders. I learnt a lot more about the public affairs industry more widely — what works well, what doesn’t work, what I needed to do to become a successful public affairs professional. So, things like how to work well with clients, really learning to understand people’s motivations.

Macmillan has a very big policy and public affairs function — but you’re still working with the same people every day, so it’s very different to working with dozens of different people on each client account. And I’d always worked on healthcare, so it was interesting to understand the issues and opportunities in areas like transport or education.

Then I went to Marie Curie and was there for just under two years, as a policy and public officer. I felt really equipped to deliver what I’d learned so far, to come up with ideas, deliver them and take ownership of that role. That was also a time of really big political change: Brexit, Trump, two general elections, fragmentation of both the Labour party and Conservative party. . . it was a politically tumultuous time, so it was really interesting to be in that role.

How would you describe the responsibilities of a policy or public affairs officer?

Often there’s a crossover between policy officer and public affairs officer. But in bigger organisations where it’s separated, the policy people do the research and come up with the recommendations, and the public affairs people would go and talk to elected officials.

Fundamentally I’d describe public affairs as communicating. Typical responsibilities — depending on the size of the team — would be reading research, developing recommendations, identifying decision makers, responding to consultations. But it’s always communicating something: taking a message and turning it into something that’s living, whether it’s reading research and coming out with practical recommendations, or whether it’s responding to a consultation and trying to meet with an MP to give that some colour.

What kind of person do you think is best suited to this work?

Someone who’s a comfortable communicator. One thing I loved at Marie Curie was talking to the people we were working for — those affected by terminal illness. As much as you need to talk to politicians, you absolutely have to be comfortable talking to everyone, regardless of their circumstances.

And it’s about listening. Often we’re the ones between a person with a problem and the person who can fix it. So we have to be able to talk to the minister, but also really able to listen to the person telling us about the problem.

Maybe even more important is being passionate about what you do. You’re trying to make a human connection with an MP on something that is important to you, and you want it to be important to them. Whether you’re able to do that depends on how passionate you are.

You have to be passionate about politics as well. You have to be interested and curious, even if you question things a lot or you’re cynical about the way that politics works.

What’s the most challenging aspect of the role?

One challenge is that there’ll always be issues you can’t get to because resources are limited. There’ll always be people you feel you’re not representing as much as others.

But research functions in charities are doing a fantastic job. At CAF, my research colleagues are giving us so many things to talk about. Then it’s just a strategic decision about what we think will work and when. If we’re not talking about one issue, it doesn’t mean it’s not important: it’s that we’ve identified there’s more likely to be movement on something else, and we’re more likely to be successful there — and then we can talk about the other issue later.

Another one is keeping up with change. A lot of what we do is reactive and it’s always a challenge to think strategically about what you want to achieve. Like any other business or function, we will typically come up with year-long or two-year plans. But if for example the prime minister changes, how do you react to that in a way that you’re still staying true to what you want to achieve? It’s a big challenge — more so now than ever before.

How do you keep in touch with or learn from peers in other organisations — are there any useful networks you’d recommend?

I don’t think there are enough, particularly for younger people. A lot of young professionals occupy roles in charities, particularly in policy and public affairs, and there’s definitely a gap for a network to support them.

Social media networks are great too. But my advice would be to find five people you admire and follow their work. And tell them that they inspire you! We are generally a sector that’s very open and we want to help people, that’s the nature of what we do. So get in touch and ask them, how are you doing things, and where are your networks?

Women in Public Affairs is one really good network for women in the first five years or so of their careers to learn from more senior people. It’s industry-wide — most members are not from charities so it’s good to have some representation from our sector.

Check out CharityComms for a sample job description for a public affairs officer.

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MissionBox editorial content is offered as guidance only, and is not meant, nor should it be construed as, a replacement for certified, professional expertise.

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Writer/editor focusing on all things nonprofit and social enterprise. Youth media trainer. Storyteller through words and pictures.