PR Rising Star Victoria McNish on nurturing a career in political communications
In December 2021, Victoria McNish won the Rising Star of the Year award at the ICCO Global Awards—another crowning moment to add to an already impressive run in the industry. Having studied politics at Durham University, McNish’s career began in Parliament working in an MP’s office, followed by a two-and-a-half-year stint at public affairs agency Newington Communications. In 2019, she took up post as a consultant at DGA Interel UK where she worked her way up to Account Director. Outside of her time at DGA Interel, McNish serves as a mentor for I Have a Voice; a social enterprise working to improve political literacy among young people in the UK from disadvantaged backgrounds. She also sits on the industry’s youth committee – NextGen Public Affairs.
ICCO: Can you describe how you were first drawn to communications?
VM: I always wanted to pursue a career in the world of politics and having started my career working in Parliament for an MP, I came to realise how important it is that businesses and organisations contribute to the policy development process. As the on-the-ground experts in their field or sector, it is critical that businesses and organisations communicate their insights and make recommendations to decision makers. Political communications – or public affairs as it is better known – provided the perfect opportunity for me to do just that.
ICCO: What do you most enjoy about working in communications?
VM: For me, it has to be strategizing. From sitting down with a new client to get to grips with their bottom line or the regulatory barrier they face, to working with them to identify their desired political or policy outcome and translating that into a comms objective, and then mapping the path to get them from point A to B. Then the hard work starts!
ICCO: What are your thoughts on being nominated for and winning the 2021 ICCO Global Rising Star of the Year award?
VM: I was delighted just to be put forward by my very supportive colleagues, let alone be nominated or to have won. While it’s a personal achievement I’m very proud of, I am also pleased to bring a bit more recognition to ‘public affairs’ and why what we do is important as a lesser-known contingent in the comms world.
ICCO: Which one of your most recent campaigns or projects are you especially proud of contributing to?
VM: I am most proud of the work my team did to support the UK’s beauty and wellbeing industry during the pandemic. The industry was one of the worse affected having been completely shut down with no access to cash flow. In the Government’s first lockdown lifting plan in 2020, they were bottom of the list with no reopening timeline and its thousands of practitioners – 85% which are women – were mocked by male MPs and the PM himself during PMQs. Our 4x award winning (5th pending!) #NotALaughingMatter campaign resulted in a momentous step-change in how the industry is perceived, and not only was it one of the first to reopen in April 2021 alongside non-essential retail, but the Government also set up a whole new ‘Personal Care’ team in Whitehall dedicated to supporting the sector.
ICCO: Are there any personal characteristics or skills that communications demands of you (or anyone) that you’ve developed in your role?
VM: Flexibility in communication approach and the ability to constantly adjust this is a key skill and one that I’m constantly learning – both externally and internally. Whether it’s how to best communicate a client’s position to political stakeholders while in keeping with their style and tone or changing the approach you take to each differing client relationship, or how you communicate with those on your own team internally in a way that best suits their needs and ways of working.
ICCO: As agencies battle for top talent, what would you say to a young person considering a career in communications to convince them it was the right choice? And what do firms need to do to retain their best staff?
VM: I would always recommend comms as a sector where young people have the opportunity to hit the ground running and progress fast. You are often thrown in the deep end and have to learn as you go, but you are surrounded by colleagues who’ve done exactly the same thing and can provide you with the safety net you need. Many agencies offer staff the opportunity to seize ownership of projects early on and move up at regular intervals, which is a great incentive for bright, ambitious individuals. Yet people shouldn’t have to arrive first and leave last to prove themselves. Agencies should empower staff to take on new challenges and progress, while also offering them a fair work life balance, a family-feel atmosphere and wellbeing support. It doesn’t have to be one or the other, which is a great thing about working at DGA Interel.
ICCO: How do you think public affairs will change over the next five years? (The way it’s conducted, the priority issues, influence of social media, tech etc)
VM: The pandemic has already had an irreversible impact on public affairs. Where once you could be waiting weeks for a politician to fit you in for a Portcullis House coffee, now if you capture their interest, you’re set for a zoom two days later. While the pace of engagement is quicker (I’ve had calls with MPs as they hop on a train back to their constituency), I question whether the same depth of relationships will be built over the screen as in person, and whether the ability to influence will be diminished as a result.
On the other hand, social media has already changed the way we communicate and will continue to do over the next 5 years. DGA Interel recently polled MPs and found that 95% check social media at least once a day, 49% say their use has increased during the pandemic, and 45% say it is important for engaging with business, charities and stakeholders. We now have an integrated digital unit as more and more of our clients are seeking this kind of support to run really effective political campaigns.
This is part 2 of a 2-part interview series with 2020 and 2021’s ICCO Rising Stars of the Year. Click HERE for interview with 2020’s winner; markettiers’ Max Mitchell.