Takeaways From A Career in Public Affairs: Barbara Fox

By: Barbara Fox

There is no greater honour than to be recognized by friends and colleagues in your profession. I experienced this when I accepted the Public Affairs Association of Canada’s (PAAC) Award of Distinction at its annual conference June 6.

The award means a great deal to me. I share it with all of my colleagues at Enterprise, past and present, and all of the people who have supported me over the years.

I’ve spent my entire career building bridges and connecting people. No matter how much the public affairs business has changed, relationships are at the heart of what we all do.

Our approach – whether in government relations, strategic communications, public relations or digital – is based on building bridges between the public, government, stakeholders and our clients. It takes solid relationships, hard work and a competitive edge to be successful.

It’s these types of lessons that have stayed with me and helped me get to where I am today. Here’s a few key takeaways I’ve learned that can be applied to anyone starting out in public affairs.

Plan ahead and try to take anything that might happen into account.

One of my greatest memories during my time in the Government of Ontario’s Office of Protocol is being responsible for Canada Day celebrations at Queen’s Park. In those days, we served hot dogs, soft drinks and cake. My first foray into media relations came when I made the decision to serve turkey hotdogs instead of beef hotdogs.

I wasn’t trying to force people to eat healthier – I did it as a cost-saving measure so we could serve more hotdogs to more people. I was amazed at the media controversy that my decision generated. It was my introduction to issues management and the Queen’s Park Press Gallery.

Situations are fluid and you have to respond and adapt.

I had the privilege of being involved in Nelson Mandela’s visit to Canada on his first international trip after being released from prison. His entourage brought many very large bags of dirty laundry to the Chateau Laurier with them on a Sunday night in Ottawa.

The Mandelas were to be officially welcomed to Canada the next morning and they had nothing to wear. This was ceremonial clothing and couldn’t just be dumped in the hotel laundry. We called dry cleaners across the city, with no luck. We tried every contact we had. Finally, we thought of the Prime Minister’s Office. They found us a friendly dry cleaner who agreed to open his business at midnight to get the job done. The Mandelas had fresh clothes for their official welcome to Canada.

You have to adjust to changing circumstances.

In my time at Enterprise over the past 23 years, I can’t think of a year or even a quarter where didn’t have to respond to a change or new trend. We have seen the traditional divides between government relations, strategic communications and public relations disappear.

We need bridges more than ever to bring these disciplines together. The exciting part is that we have so many more tools at our disposal. The challenge is using them effectively to reach and move audiences. We need to be willing to learn new tools and techniques that come along every day. You can’t sit still in this business, no matter how long you have been in it. You have to continue to learn. Enterprise today is a completely different firm than it was just five years ago. Five years from now, we will be completely different again.

You have to be able to tell a compelling story.

Our new brand and Look Inside philosophy reflect that. We look inside to identify the barriers that prevent our clients from achieving their goals. We find the emotional drivers that will help overcome them. We incorporate these into a compelling narrative that will resonate with the audiences we need to reach.

You have to be competitive.

We’re in a competitive, high-stakes business. We compete for every piece of business we get. You have to want to compete and win.

To me, that’s what makes what we do so interesting and fun. To anyone beginning a career in this profession – especially young women – be confident in your abilities. Work hard, do good work. You’ll stand out and success will come.

This is a great career. We get to work on issues that matter and that affect the day to day lives of Canadians. Transportation, infrastructure, energy, education, healthcare…whatever the big public policy issues of the day are, you’ll likely be involved in them in some way.

We do important work and have fun doing it. Not many people have the same opportunity.

Barbara Fox is CEO of Enterprise. Follow her on Twitter @barbarajkfox.

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