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The first thing that hits you when moving from political campaigns into corporate communications is the sudden slowdown.
"Ok, I'll give a few journalists a call."
"No, you can't do that. We need a strategy document and a media contact list by midday."
"But…it's just a simple statement!"
Welcome to corporate comms. It’s a far cry from the existence of a campaign communications staffer. A good political campaign often lives or dies on the speed with which it responds to events. But in the world of corporate PR, competence is measured on, and paid by, the amount of time expended completing a task.
I have experience on both sides. I started by working in political campaigns, then went into corporate comms, before being hired as Head of PR for Britain’s largest newspaper. Now I split that job with writing The Sun’s leader column on a regular basis. The experiences and skills I learned in the nimble and often anarchic environment of political campaigns have come in use throughout my career.
So if you’re a comms professional looking to make a move from the political to corporate world, particularly in the U.K. or Europe, here are three things to keep in mind:
1. Expect to fight the bureaucracy
Coupled with the stifling bureaucracy you’ll often encounter in the corporate world is the fear of journalists and media that malingers around PR offices and company boardrooms.
On campaigns it’s essential to befriend the key hacks, usually the political correspondents and commentators, and be able to brief off-the-record with confidence. Yet in corporate comms, although building journalist relationships is encouraged, every contact with the media must be meticulously planned, recorded and reported.
Although it initially feels illogical and awkward, the difference in modus operandi can be easily explained. On a campaign you have one overriding concern: the voters. Yes, the candidate, donors and campaign staff are important, but everything you do must ultimately answer the question "will this help us win more votes?" in the affirmative. This means having the tools and competence to act fast.
By contrast, in the corporate world there are a huge number of constituents, each needing to be consulted and appeased. From the CEO, to shareholders, to the customers and potential customers, everything that is said or sent by the comms team must take account of all these stakeholders.
2. Adjusting to the pace is critical for success
Although the pace is markedly different in the corporate world, it doesn’t detract from the fun that can be had tackling the challenges of corporate PR. Nor does it prevent a seasoned campaigner bringing some tricks of the political trade to the party.
First of all, a campaigner’s comfort with moving quickly does mean that, although you might not be able to act as fast as you’d like, you will probably spot opportunities before those who have never worked in political black ops. This can quickly demonstrate your value to a business.
Secondly, while you have to get used to your carefully crafted press release being filleted by committee, the ability to write carefully, quickly, and succinctly, as campaigns require, will come in handy when your business finds itself in crisis. Large corporations and PR agencies are, in general, woefully underprepared for crisis situations, whereas meltdowns are a daily occurrence on a campaign.
3. Bunker mentality can be an asset
In my experience campaigners tend to expect the worst—a consequence of the bunker mentality that develops in political campaigns. The upside is that your antennae are more finely tuned to difficult questions and potential negative press, whereas those who work in a business will struggle to see anything but the good work they do.
The thing to remember is that working in campaigns is multi-disciplinary. You walk away from political campaigns with a set of writing, communication and media skills that can be put to use in any environment, and it’s up to you to draw on them at the right time.
I must admit, however, that nothing comes close to the nerve-wrenching anticipation before the results are read for an election on which you’ve worked, and the exhilaration of winning (if you do). And for that reason you’ll always find yourself looking back at campaigns and wondering if it’s time to have another go.
Dylan Sharpe is Head of PR and Leader Writer for The Sun. He was a press officer on Boris Johnson’s 2008 London Mayoral campaign and Head of Press for the No campaign at the 2011 referendum on the alternative vote.