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‘People see the world differently,’ says Simon of the ‘contextual shift’ in Western politics.
It is a trend that called for the biggest change in Portland in 2016, with the formation of a specialist Brexit team (including some from the UK government) to help clients decipher the pattern of post-referendum events. ‘It’s such uncharted waters, no one can predict the future, but at least we can have a good idea of the direction of travel and the priorities of the governments, the priorities of political parties, and public expectations,’ says Simon, a former head of digital communications at Number Ten.
While turbulence affects the political landscape, the digital world is also going through a tectonic change, with the explosion of content that is ‘becoming more and more visual’. ‘People need to be more careful of what they’re doing, what they’re saying. Because of smartphones, it’s hard now to have relatively private conversations in fairly small groups — there’s always a high risk that it’s being taped or recorded or tweeted live.’
Despite such privacy risks, he says shying away from social media altogether is not a smart move either. He points to his biggest client, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, as an example of how the benefits of online media can be harnessed for good, and all philanthropic endeavours can be played back to the public in the rest of the world in real time. ‘It’s incredibly powerful.’
He is proud of Portland’s presence as a ‘global boutique’ firm, with strategic hires and the recent launch of its Singapore office. ‘We work very cleverly as a team here,’ he says, likening its approach to total football, as advisers are required to be versatile enough to mitigate an array of reputational challenges. ‘You might lose a game, but you look at winning the league — you’ve got to look at where you’re going to be next season.’