Public affairs: a catalyst for change?

Natasha Thomas, vice president of public affairs and stakeholder relations at FTSE 100 listed technology firm Sage discusses data, technology and the evolution of public affairs with CIPR Public Affairs Group vice chair James Boyd-Wallis.  

Natasha Thomas’s interest in politics started when aged 11, she wrote to then prime minister Margaret Thatcher to call for a ban on seal hunting.

“I was so horrified by Greenpeace’s pictures of the cull, a cruel method of killing for the fashion trade and thought our prime minister should use her power to stop it. With hindsight, it probably wasn’t at the top of Thatcher’s priority list!” says Thomas. 

But her belief in the power to change things hasn’t diminished over a 30-year career in public affairs for organisations such as the Institute of Directors, Nike, the John Lewis Partnership, Iogen and Shell and now Sage.

The growing importance of public affairs 

Thomas joined Sage to set up a public affairs discipline. “We had a lot of compliance and tech experts who were talking to the government from a technical perspective. But the reputation and relationship side of public affairs was a new piece for the business.” 

It’s perhaps unsurprising; when Thomas joined, the political landscape in the UK at least was one of post-Brexit manoeuvring, jaw-dropping election results and often confusion. Cutting through the noise with a clear message on the value of the digital economy was vital for the company. 

Now some six years on, with an excellent team in place across most of its key markets, Sage is “very much part of those broader policymaker discussions and decisions. We have helped create a more supportive policy environment for small businesses and ensure they benefit from an increasingly digitised economy,” she says. 

Sage’s corporate affairs function is a standalone part of the business, and Sage’s chief corporate affairs officer Amy Lawson is on the executive leadership team. 

“That development was a real turning point for us as it showed how central corporate and public affairs is to our business,” explains Thomas.

“How a business impacts society is one of the defining issues for a company today. It’s become central to whether a business succeeds or fails.” 

And the remit of the public affairs professional has increased. “We must be connected to the wider regulatory and social agenda to provide our organisations with insight and intelligence. We need to understand which societal issues policymakers will focus on next and how, focusing on ones where together we have real impact.” 

“For example, in the case of Sage, how can innovation and tech policy help SMEs address issues like getting paid on time, accessing finance or demonstrating their sustainability credentials. And Sage needs to show up in our communities as a company that will partner to support digital skills, diversity and a thriving economy.” 

Alongside a growing remit, Thomas argues public affairs professionals must become more collaborative. 

“As the pace of change increases and the world becomes more complex and interconnected, policy makers no longer have time to develop new legislation slowly. With tech and climate policy, for example, it is increasingly important to get all the relevant stakeholders in the room together and move at pace.” So, coalition building will become a more intrinsic part of the public affairs practitioner’s armoury. 

Looking forward

As an industry, Thomas believes public affairs professionals need to get smarter about developing insights. 

While there will always be a place for polling and similar types of research, she says businesses should make better use of the data they now have. 

“Many businesses have huge amounts of data which they can and should use to help inform and influence policy discussions and decisions. Sage has started using anonymised data insights to good effect, and I am noticing other firms do it as well,” explains Thomas.

Journalists have certainly noticed this new trend from the public relations industry, the cousin of public affairs. For a brief period as the pandemic slipped into the rear-view mirror, companies made good use of internal data to understand the return to work through everything from anonymised mobile phone location data to the number of taps through office security gates. 

Public affairs lends itself as a discipline to smart use of data. It can help provide the evidence that politicians need to better understand an industry or issue, leading to better policy. For civil servants, real-time data analysis can provide insights of the impact of new policy prescriptions. 

Of course, emotion – and persuasion – will still matter, too. 

One only has to look at environmental policy, where even the most impartial observers suggest that the ever-growing evidence base of climate change and the regulatory change globally are unaligned. 

Whatever the tool, it is clear Thomas remains convinced that change is possible and how public affairs can play a positive role.

A version of this first appeared in Influence magazine