The Powerfully Polished PA

Alison Judge shares her wisdom and experience

“Can you take care of this, Alison?” It’s early 2015, and my boss, a Cambridge academic, has just told me I’ll be coordinating a research centre launch attended by international experts, world media, several ambassadors, heads of global aid agencies and a former prime minister of Australia.

A hundred questions are racing through my mind. How am I going to organise this? What are the ‘rules’? How to refer to each guest, in writing or when speaking, who has ‘top billing’ and who to sit next to whom at lunch? And then, news flash, the day of the launch will be crowned with a meeting with the First Lady of the United States, Mrs Michelle Obama. Now there’s the tightest of security and timelines to observe too. And as PA to the centre founder, my job is to ensure of course that all goes off smoothly, successfully and with maximum positive regard for my boss and her institution.

The world of etiquette and protocol can seem mystifying. There are so many potential pitfalls, from “gift gaffes” to fluffing the VIP seating plan - or worse, no plan at all! - through to using the wrong form of address. So let me share with you here a couple of quick tips for a VIP etiquette, protocol and cultural confidence boost:

1. At an official event, the guest of honour will usually arrive last and leave first. It’s impolite to arrive after or depart before he or she does.

2. When making introductions to a visiting dignitary, we use the phrase “May I present…” rather than “Can I introduce...”.

3. A former head of state generally keeps their official title. So for example at present, we have President Biden in the USA, but if his predecessor Mr Trump were to be invited to an event, he would still be referred to as “Mr President”. Similarly, the father of the current king of Spain would still be referred to on a visit to the UK (according to UK protocol) as “His Majesty”.

4. A fail-safe way to convey a suitable degree of respect in closing an official letter or even email to a dignitary in the Middle East in particular is to use the phrase: “Please accept the assurances of our highest consideration”.

5. When dealing with Chinese counterparts in a business meeting, having an alcoholic drink to seal the agreement is generally expected. However, if your boss/principal doesn’t drink, it is acceptable to have a designated toast-drinker (very often their right-hand person), so please be aware of this and find ahead of time an alternative willing toast-drinker if you don’t want to be nominated). Not to do so would be awkward and could convey a lack of trust or enthusiasm for the project.


Manners around the world have been a life-long fascination. I’ve been an intercultural coach and international liaison officer after spending long periods in Asia, the Middle East and Europe. But this high profile event required detailed knowledge of official and diplomatic protocol, and for this reason I travelled to study with the Maltese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The next year I became the first international etiquette and communication advisor to 250 year old UK etiquette authority Debrett’s. Since then I have worked with members of royal households, London’s diplomatic corps, international auction houses, and a wide range of business sectors.

I know firsthand that no PA or EA has hours to spend trawling through books on etiquette and protocol (or even to hop on a plane to Malta). I also know that often you’re expected to be the source of all knowledge, especially when the stakes are high. I’d love to know how I can help you shine with polish and power. So now, over to you: what have been the trickiest international VIP conundrums you faced?

 

 

Alison Judge is a culture and communication coach who has worked across the Middle
East/North Africa region as well as in India, Japan, Italy and the UK. Trained by former
diplomatic staff, her work focuses primarily on establishing solid and lasting connections
between people and organisations of differing cultures and values.

 

With a background in corporate, educational and media sectors, Alison has managed multicultural, highly diverse and geographically dispersed teams and specialises in global etiquette, royal and diplomatic protocol, negotiation, cultural awareness, international collaboration, event management, high level and confidential correspondence, speech writing and verbal and non-verbal communication.

 

She teaches Leadership and Communication each summer at Cambridge University and received an excellence award for VIP event management.