Lunch with...Nikki da Costa
PRCA director general Francis Ingham breaks bread with Nikki da Costa, managing director of Nikki da Costa & Associates at Shepherd’s restaurant.
Some of my PAN lunches are fun. Some of my PAN lunches are serious. Happily, my lunch with Nikki da Costa was both. She takes things seriously, but she doesn’t take herself too seriously. Attitudes that are a little rare in our industry….
We kick off with mental health. Nikki has taken the utterly admirable step of putting her own money into a fund that can be accessed by any public affairs practitioner who is encountering mental health issues. I ask her how it’s going.
"One of the aims of the mental health initiative is to create something which absolutely respects the privacy of the people who access it. So, I don’t know how it’s going! I handed over the funds to the Institute, and at the end of the year I will just be told how much money has been used, and what will be the right amount to give for the next year to continue to provide provision.
"But what I do know is how many people are visiting the relevant part of the website. It’s a couple every week, and people have been talking to me about it too. So, I know it’s having a good impact, and is taking things forward, which is fantastic."
It’s worth reflecting on those words for just a moment. Nikki da Costa is giving her own money to help people whose identity she does not know, and most likely never will. What an unselfish act of generosity. I ask her the simple question -why?
"One of the great joys of doing your own thing is that you can just take a decision and go “This feels right”, and then you go act. I don’t necessarily think that we suffer more than any other professional services industry regarding mental health issues. But if you look at the stats which say that one in three or one in four people in the UK are affected at some point, then it’s clearly an issue which we ought to address."
I ask Nikki if she thinks people are still reluctant to talk to their bosses and colleagues?
"I think so. But I’ve seen examples where people have had wonderful receptions, and where MDs have been very supportive. Putting it frankly, I was advised not to go on the record regarding my own experiences. And yet I felt it was important to do so. Because if I can’t do it, then who can?"
Any were there any negative consequences from having done so, I ask?
"Not that I am aware of. Obviously, you don’t know if people might have gone “Okay, I don’t want to work with Nikki”. But my gut instinct is at some level there would have been a cultural mismatch anyway. What I love about the clients that I choose to work with is that we are aligned. And that’s one of the biggest pleasures, the joy of working across our industry, and seeing just how much strength, positivity, and leadership there is within it."
We move on to what Nikki’s up to professionally - her munificence needs profits behind it after all!
"My essential mission is to provide support for our industry as we professionalise. The tagline is “Success with less struggle”. We keep reinventing the wheel in many ways. We all individually go through so much, and yet we’re not very good at all with transferring knowledge or experiences. So, I provide coaching re professional performance."
I observe that this seems a bit of a departure from the career path chosen by most public affairs practitioners.
"I still believe that I’m in public affairs. I love it. I told Mark [Glover, CEO of Newington] “I’ll give you five years, and in five years I know I will want to do something else”. And Mark gave me the freedom to achieve great things, and then to change direction."
What state do you think the industry’s in right now, I ask?
"In general, I think we continue to professionalise. I think we are increasingly taking a leadership role. But we’re not so good at addressing the long-term development of our business or organisation. That’s probably the bit of professionalism that we’re still looking at."
I proceed to make the usual glib comment that the political uncertainty of recent years has been good for the industry. And she corrects me with numbers.
"I’ve analysed the public registers, looking at the number of declared clients. Roughly 2,000 in 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014. Around the general election, you see a massive upswing to about 3,000 to 3,500. And then in 2016, it drops back down to just over 2,000. So, we did a good job as an industry in going out to organisations, but there are about 1,500 clients missing in action. What happened? We need to consider how we keep those clients outside of election periods."
The data are fascinating, and Nikki’s love of numbers is something we share. Finally, I ask my usual question: something PAN readers won’t know about Nikki that she’s happy to share. And the answer is…..
"I fought competitively as a kick-boxer in my late twenties. I had a very good year on the junior circuit. I had my own personal rocky moments and fought back from that. I’m very proud that I won CIMAC World Cup. Fighting the same girl I had fought all year, I was down, got back up and on the final attack I managed to get in a kick to the head, and win."
Ladies and gentlemen, you have been warned!
Mineral water (Nikki) / Sancerre (Me)