#50over50: Stuart Thomson

About the author

Richard Bailey Hon FCIPR is editor of PR Academy's PR Place Insights. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.

Stuart Thomson challenges my attempt to praise him as a widely-admired and universally-liked public affairs practitioner. Instead he prefers to emphasise his outsider status, his ‘chippiness’ even.

As evidence of this, he cites the decision of this youngster from a comprehensive school in Kent, the son of working class parents and the first in the family to go to university, to travel all the way to Aberdeen to study for a Politics and Economics degree.

Then there was his decision to shun the local Kent and nearby London clubs supported by his classmates in favour of supporting Liverpool FC. There’s the Twitter handle that makes his political affiliation with the Labour Party clear: @Redpolitics (and perhaps gives another explanation of his support for the red side of Stanley Park on Merseyside).

Red (or centre-left) politics was also the subject of his subsequently-published doctoral thesis as he moved on from an MA to researching the challenges facing western European social democratic parties.

Like so many of us embarking on adult life after university, public relations or public affairs was less a plan than an opportunity to be seized with both hands.

Armed with his degree and PhD in politics, he wrote speculatively to a range of public affairs firms in London. From his first internship at Rowland Company, which turned into a permanent position, he’s been employed ever since in public affairs roles.

Most recently he led the public affairs consultancy practice within the law firm BDB Pitmans for more than 17 years.

‘Some of our clients would be external, and others would be clients of the law firm who needed public affairs and reputation advice.’

‘Professional services firms including law firms have realised – either directly by offering the services themselves or by having people close by that they can bolt on to provide – that full service is what clients really want, and especially in crisis situations.’

Before BDB Pitmans he’d spent 7 years at another law firm, DLA Piper. So Thomson has unrivalled experience of being a public affairs practitioner working closely with lawyers. ‘I can do the communications and the political piece, and then sit beside a colleague who really knows their sector, its intricacies, the regulatory environment. I can use their expertise, they can use mine, and that’s why I stayed within law firms for such a long time.’ He contrasts this depth with the tendency he’s observed among some public relations consultancies to ‘wing it’ when claiming public affairs expertise.

Thomson observes that crisis communication has traditionally focused on the media, and latterly on social media, ‘but there are a whole range of different audiences, particularly the political ones, that have a real impact on long-term reputation.’

This emphasis on politicians as a major stakeholder group was the distinctive message of his latest book, Reputation in Business, published last year. ‘Yes you need to have that focus on the media and social media, but there are all these other audiences you can’t ignore.’

‘In my time doing public affairs it has become a much broader discipline. It started with parliamentarians and particularly MPs, but it’s become much broader. We have to be better stakeholder communicators, we have to be on top of the media in a crisis, we have to be able to engage much more internally. Politics is part of it, but to be a good public affairs professional you have to have mastered all these other roles.’

‘It affects charities, businesses, NGOs, and public sector bodies. Politics clearly matters to all of them.’

Alongside the day job, Thomson says he has always enjoyed writing. In addition to his published doctoral thesis on social democratic parties and his blog, he has written, co-authored or edited the following: Dictionary of Labour Quotations, New Activism and the Corporate Response,  Public Affairs in Practice, Public Affairs: A Global Perspective and the recent Reputation in Business.

He’s revisiting one of these subjects for a forthcoming book on how activists and businesses interact with each other. 

‘It’s partly a hangover from the PhD’, he says of his motivation to get published. ‘But it’s also about having a point of differentiation from others within the profession.’

Thomson is animated on the lack of diversity in the profession. ‘PR as a whole, and particularly public affairs, is not very diverse. We’re not diverse enough; we’re not open enough. One of the areas I’m particularly aware of is educational diversity. I now live in leafy north London, but was a working class lad from a comprehensive school.’ He points to the domination of high political office by privately-educated Oxbridge graduates as an example of the problem.

Now, for the first time in decades, he’s faced with a career choice following BDB Pitman’s decision to close its public affairs consultancy. Should he seek an in-house role, pursue independent consultancy or join up with an established public affairs consultancy? Or should he focus on his existing training business (he already works with the PRCA and PR Academy)?

Certainly, whichever route he chooses or whichever opportunity comes his way, there’s potentially a well-respected and, I still assert, well-liked public affairs expert for hire.