New Council Chair Announces Top Priorities
Peter Wilkinson has no trouble remembering the first Council event he ever attended. It was in 1994, and Wilkinson, then with the Canadian Institute of Chartered Accountants, was there to learn everything he could about measuring the effectiveness of public affairs. The moderator asked each participant to say a few words about their organization. “I can’t do that,” Wilkinson responded. “This is my first day on the job.”
Now the Council’s new chair, Wilkinson — to put it lightly — has come a long way since 1994. “I learned a lot at that event about how to put metrics to what we do in public affairs,” he says. “That is still a major concern in our work. In fact, with all the changes going on in the business and public affairs worlds since the ‘90s, measurement is more important than ever.”
As global head, regulatory and public affairs, for Toronto-based Manulife (John Hancock in the U.S.), Wilkinson says he has worked on policy files that progressed over six or seven years. “By the same token, when we’re operating in an environment like we have been during the pandemic, we have had to respond to issues quickly and get results immediately.
“What makes this even more challenging is how complex our supply chains are today. They are global, and I include information as part of our supply chains. Now we have to be able to communicate effectively not just with Ottawa or Washington, but with Beijing and Tokyo. And now that we can’t be there in person, we have to be sharper than ever.”
Council President Doug Pinkham believes that Wilkinson’s corporate, government and association experience will be extremely helpful in a year when all three sectors are facing serious crises. “Peter knows how to guide organizations through times of great change, and he has done it both domestically and internationally. We’re fortunate to have him chairing the board as we move through the next phase of COVID-19 and then into recovery.”
Even companies that think of themselves as local or domestic must now realize they are in fact global because the flow of information, as well as the supplies of goods and services on which they rely, are from international sources. “These were things a lot of companies didn’t have to think much about in December 2019,” Wilkinson says. “But now they do. Because of the pandemic, companies are dealing with new regulatory issues — especially in the area of trade. Many products are simply not allowed to be imported or exported from certain countries.”
Six Years in Government
Although he was born in Montreal, Wilkinson grew up in Trenton, Ontario, a town of 12,000, where his father was a chartered accountant or, as he would be called in the U.S., a CPA. A graduate of the University of Western Ontario, he has spent most of his career in the private sector, with a six-year stint in government. From 2003-2006, Wilkinson was chief of staff to the Ontario Minister of Finance and from 2006-2010 he was chief of staff to the Premier of Ontario.
It was a valuable experience. “When I left the private sector and went into government, I would speak frequently to business students, and I was surprised to encounter a prevalent attitude among them,” he says. “Their attitude was ‘we don’t care about government.’ They cared about marketing and risk management, but they didn’t seem to understand how government could affect business, or to be interested in it, until you talked to them about it.”
With that experience behind him, Wilkinson is encouraged by the Council’s efforts to work more closely with business schools, as demonstrated by its recent report on the leading MBA programs with public affairs coursework. A priority for his term will be building strong alliances with business and public policy schools. “As the business world is only now coming to understand, an MBA is a great education for a career in public affairs,” he says. “But when business schools include more curriculum about government relations, that also familiarizes MBA students who don’t go into public affairs as a career with a better understanding of what we do.”
While the outreach program to universities is important, Wilkinson says his “top priority will be in the area of diversity, equity and inclusion.
“That will be the focus of my term, though I want to emphasize that I will just be building on the important steps taken by my two immediate predecessors. We’ve reached an inflection point in the U.S., in Canada and in many other parts of the world with something we’ve talked about for a long time and made some progress on, but that we now understand is urgent.”
Acting on that urgency is not just the right thing to do — it is also essential to the public affairs profession. “Think about it,” Wilkinson says. “We’re supposed to explain the world to the business community, and we’re supposed to explain the business community to the world. If we don’t understand that world, if we are not part of or reflect that world, how are we supposed to be able to do either of those things?”
And how we come to understand that world “requires seeking out different perspectives and this will require that we take active steps to do so. The Council’s DEI programming and the work we do in support of groups like College to Congress through the Foundation for Public Affairs are an important part of that effort. I’ll devote much of my energy, as chair, to other ways of attracting more senior-level professionals of color and convening a diverse base of experts to improve the Council. With our Executive Committee, our board and our excellent staff, I’m confident that this is a goal we can achieve.”
Other priorities for Wilkinson include improving the global reach of the Council and developing policy communications programming to better serve a pandemic and post-pandemic world.
Wilkinson was elected chair during the Council’s virtual board meeting in October, where new members to the Executive Committee and Board of Directors were announced. The new Executive Committee members are:
- Stephanie Childs, vice president of global government relations, Kimberly-Clark Corp.
- Molly Fogarty, senior vice president of corporate and government affairs, Nestle USA
- Genna Gent, vice president of U.S. government relations, McDonald’s Corp.
- Jeff Mascott, CEO, Adfero