Stuart Thomson is Head of Public Affairs at BDB Pitmans, advising clients on all elements of their public affairs strategies, including political engagement, corporate communications and reputation management.
He is an honorary research fellow at the University of Aberdeen and is the author of several books including New Activism and the Corporate Response.
How do you think the political environment has changed?
Stuart: The role of government has fundamentally changed since Covid-19 took a hold. The level of support provided to sectors, individuals firms and employees has dominated the government’s response. The challenge now is to return to economic growth whilst removing the support and, over the longer term, dealing with the debt levels.
For entrepreneurs, HNWIs and other private clients, the environment is one of opportunities mixed with the need to move quickly whilst also keeping lines of communication open with the government as they decide on their policy approaches. Governments don’t deliberately get things wrong, rather it happens because they don’t have the information they need to make the right decisions. So thought out engagement is critical.
What's your policy outlook?
Stuart: The government will want businesses and HNWIs to continue to provide support for the economy and communities as well. This could feed its way into a number of policies, not least taxation. So the government might look at wealth taxes since a huge amount of liquidity has been created which has flowed back into asset prices which will have benefited many HNWIs.
But this is a reforming government and one also focused on removing obstacles to growth. So they are likely to listen to ideas that unblock markets, deliver change and help the UK to be more outward-looking post-Brexit. So I would say engagement to shape the government’s approach rather than just being on the receiving end of change.
Do you think public perceptions of HNWIs are changing?
Stuart: I don’t think there is a uniform pattern across the UK, let alone overseas. UK political audiences seem more aware, now across the parties, that it is better to work with HNWIs rather than just scapegoating them when something is perceived to have gone wrong (or to disguise their own policy failings). There are real opportunities for HNWIs in, for instance, helping to attract investment and trading opportunities for the UK post-Brexit. They have the global connections and networks that the country needs. That starts to shift the conversation about the contribution that HNWIs can play.
The UK’s relations with countries around the world is changing because of Brexit, technology, economic imperatives and other reasons, so we will need the ‘soft power’ of HNWIs.
How have the major parties responded to these changes in public attitude?
Stuart: As a result of the impact of Covid-19 across the economy and health, as well as in other areas, the immediate aftermath will be of ‘we are all in this together’ (as former PM David Cameron was fond of quoting). Everyone wants to get back to ‘normal’ as soon as possible and everyone needs to be seen to be playing their role in that. So that does bring with it a set of expectations.
Politics has taken a backseat over the past few months but that has already started to change as questions gather about the decisions made. This will only increase further as we enter a period of public and Parliamentary inquiries into those decisions. These may involve many HNWIs who are involved with and run businesses, both in the UK and abroad, so vigilance is required but alongside thought about the right approach to adopt in advance.
Do you think that exposes HNWIs to more risks?
Stuart: Yes, potentially. If their profile is raised then they will need to more actively manage their reputations. Many HNWIs have a number of reputations to think about – in business, across charities, in philanthropy, voluntary work, across countries, etcetera. The more they get drawn into a discussion about the decisions made by the government during Covid, the higher the level of risk. The risks do not just come from the media or social media, but from a range of audiences, all of who should always hear your side of the story. Not doing this just unnecessarily increases the level of risk.
How can HNWIs prepare for these risks?
Stuart: Their approach should be focused on understanding the current situation – the plans and processes in place, the expectations and knowledge that relevant audiences have about you, areas of misunderstanding – and then looking ahead to where trouble could come from. Once HNWIs have this then they can put a plan in place to protect themselves by minimising the risk. In that sense, reputation is no different from other aspects of running an organisation – you identify risk and then take action to address it.
It is also critical that they get the right sort of robust advice which draws together a complete picture – communications, the law, accountants, wealth managers and others – and is clear about what needs to be addressed and the action to take. I have always found that working alongside lawyers who really know and understand HNWIs to be incredibly useful. By joining up the advice, we can offer better protection.
What advice should HNWIs heed right now?
Stuart: What we all need is a stable political and economic environment to help recover from Covid-19 and that really comes down to a clear acceptance of the rule of law. There are certainly challenges to that from across the world so we are seeing HNWIs diversifying their approach and portfolios for instance by buying land in countries with stable constitutions.
But there is also the need to remind governments that uncertainty will not help the recovery and to make it clear to them what they need to do. The UK is having to cope with Brexit as well and there will be views about how this should best be handled, particularly around a trade deal with the EU. There are threats and opportunities through this process and HNWIs should think about conveying these to government.
If there was one piece of advice you could give to successful individuals right now, what would it be?
Stuart: As with any ‘one piece of advice’ it has several elements. They should keep a constant watch on where particularly politics and the media are taking us because taking steps to manage risk puts them firmly in control. Don’t be led by events but instead, take a forward-looking approach to help shape them. In that way, their interests and reputations can be better protected.
Stuart Thompson is Head of Public Affairs as BDB Pitmans and writes the law firm's public affairs blog