LONDON — Suspect wine, sweltering political obsessives and the bitter taste of regret: it can only be party season in Westminster.
Think tanks, lobbying shops and even much-loved media titles are all rolling out the red carpet for their summer gatherings over the next few weeks, with proper power players rubbing shoulders with humble free booze-enjoyers to swap gossip, gather intel and spray around business cards like confetti.
So how can the consummate political pro make the most of all this enforced revelry? POLITICO tapped up the experts so you didn’t have to. Cheers!
Seriously, watch the drinking
Getting blitzed may be big and clever — but it’s bad for business. It might seem like common sense, but free booze, 30-degree heat, and a sea of unfamiliar faces make it easy to slip from tipsy to trolleyed in record time.
Rat-arsed antics or loose-lipped gossip can come back to haunt you. So — and stay with us here — why not try a glass of water or two in between the throat-burning £4.99 bottles of vino?
“Don’t forget that you’re representing your organization,” warns Christine Quigley, a director at public affairs agency Grayling. “Although alcohol is usually free-flowing, getting too tipsy is not a good look, and behaving respectfully to fellow attendees and staff alike is non-negotiable.”
Pick your shots
Making the most of your time is no easy feat, with so many conflicting events happening every night. So do some forward planning rather than beelining towards the nearest Merlot.
“When you’re young, go to everything,” says Casey Calista, public affairs lead for tech at H+K Strategies. “But at this point in my career, I say no. So I skip events and prioritize those dedicated to diverse networking — where you know you’ll get to meet lots of interesting and relevant people in the same place.”
She added: “That’s less about the one or two named speakers and more about the crowd that are likely to be in attendance.”
In turbulent political times, think too about where the power actually lies. Pressing the flesh can be critical for getting a sense of how the sands are shifting.
“The only schmoozing worth my time now is Labour-led events,” said one in-house public affairs professional, granted anonymity to speak freely about their job. “I will say I’ve been super impressed by their engagement lately. Very communicative and proactively reaching out to lobbyists to counter negative press stories, which they were not doing a year ago.”
They added: “But they also seem much more guarded over their alcohol intake. I remember back in the Corbyn days when we could get Labour MPs to drink with us no problem.” It’s a hard life.
Avoid the hard sell
Look, just because the foreign secretary is standing in the same room as you eating a tiny pastry doesn’t necessarily mean he wants to hear chapter and verse on your no-doubt-fascinating plan to improve the widget supply chain.
“Summer parties are a great opportunity to build more informal relationships with politicians, officials and other people in the industry,” says Quigley. But she warns: “Pigeonholing policymakers for an intense lobbying conversation is a no-no; just have a chat and follow up more formally if appropriate.”
“Summer parties are a great opportunity to build more informal relationships with politicians, officials and other people in the industry” | Henry Nicholls/AFP via Getty Images
Instead, make an effort to actually get to know people — and remember there’s rarely such a thing as a useless contact.
“While some may scoff at our penchant for gathering, it is becoming increasingly evident that these social rendezvous hold significant value,” says Jon Gerlis, head of public relations at the CIPR public relations trade body. “They have the ability to transform strangers into valuable connections and to help us make sense of a fast-moving and chaotic political environment.”
Work the room — and don’t just cling to your friends
It may shock you to learn that there are some socially awkward people in politics. But, if you can, try and roam widely.
H+K MD James Drewer warns that while it’s good to catch up with colleagues, there are far too many of the same huddles appearing at party after party. Working the room is a must, he says — and that means cracking out the trusty business cards.
A quick reminder, though. These aren’t Pokémon cards, and if you do get one, try and actually reach out. Drewer reckons you’ve only got about 48 hours to make contact or risk being forgotten, so just enough time for the hangover to clear.
As much as Westminster loves an echo chamber, try and push out of your political comfort zone to chew the fat with the other side, too. “Do seek out opportunities to speak to people with different political persuasions and viewpoints to you,” said Quigley of agency Grayling. “As public affairs professionals, challenging our own perceptions and seeing others’ points of view is vital in helping us advise clients and CEOs.”
Deploy the newbies to harvest intel
While personal network building is all well and good, another agency executive — granted anonymity to openly discuss their strategy — said they try and encourage staff to treat summer season as a team-wide intelligence-gathering effort, opting to divvy up events and pushing to get their younger colleagues on the invite lists.
“Junior staff often come back with the best intel about what the competition is up to — either because people feel safe to boast to them or their curious questions elicit juicy responses,” they said.
The same person added: “Our approach is to get together the next day to chat about what we’ve learnt. It helps keep us all informed, but also reminds the team there is a purpose to these events, and it’s not just a piss-up.” As if!
This reporting originally appeared in London Influence, POLITICO’s weekly newsletter on lobbying, campaigning and influence in Westminster and beyond. Sign up here.