PR industry gears up for legislative battle

The PR industry is steeling for a battle with UK regulators, hitting back at plans to bring both lobbying and media relations under stricter controls.

Review: Mark Harper is overseeing the Government’s consultation (Rex Features)
Review: Mark Harper is overseeing the Government’s consultation (Rex Features)

The industry further entrenched itself against the Government’s lobbying consultation this week as 70 per cent of the CIPR’s public affairs members came out against plans in the consultation to exclude in-house experts and charities from the register.

However, the Government is standing its corner after dismissing the suggestion that the existing lobbying plans are discriminatory, or that they break EU laws, as suggested in PRWeek.

A Cabinet Office spokesman told PRWeek it ‘did not agree’ that the plans were discriminatory, adding: ‘We have made clear that transparency is the primary objective of these proposals, and it is important that people can see who is represented by the people whom ministers meet.’

The closing date for the consultation, being overseen by Cabinet Office minister Mark Harper, is 13 April. Harper defended the Government's position to public affairs professionals at a CIPR event last night.

Responding to widespread disagreement over the proposed charter's exclusion of all but third party lobbyists, Harper emphasised that 'public confidence' was the key driver behind the process.

'When an in-house representative from a company comes to see me, the public knows what's happening and that is transparent. If someone from an agency comes to see me, no-one knows who they're advocating for – and that's not transparent.'

Earlier representatives from the public affairs industry had called into question the legitimacy of a register that excludes in-house representatives from defence contractors and tobacco firms as well as key advisory businesses, including lawyers, management consultants and accountancy firms.

One attendee argued that as many as 80 per cent of those working in the lobbying industry were in-house.

Speaking ahead of the debate, Weber Shandwick corporate and public affairs chairman Jon McLeod said: ‘In-house people should be included. It’s a false distinction in the paper, which is a fundamental flaw in what the Government is proposing.’

Harper conceded that the definition of lobbying would be one of the most important aspects of the consultation process, and insisted that the Government's plans were only a 'starting point' and that the consultation was a 'solid process in which everyone can have their say'.

He added that he felt lobbying played a 'valuable' part in the democratic process. 'It is not the Government's view that the industry hold undue influence, but that is the view of a significant proportion of the public,' he said. 'That doesn't do Parliament any good and it doesn't do the public affairs industry any good. The objective has to be greater transparency.'

The latest developments come the week after the PRCA and CIPR slammed a House of Lords Communications Committee report on journalism last Thursday, which called for stronger regulation of the PR industry and suggested that PR was a threat to the future of journalism.

PRCA chief executive Francis Ingham dubbed the report ‘posturing of the most empty sort’, while CIPR CEO Jane Wilson added it was ‘flawed’.

The CIPR survey of its members' feelings towards the consultation which revealed the rejection of excluding in-house PRs and charities from the reigster also revealed that 56 per cent wanted an independent body with industry representation overseeing it.

It also showed that 72 per cent thought non-compliance should be met with forced removal from the register, with 81 per cent believing lobbyists not on the register should not engage government or officials in lobbying.

The fight-back

'We’ve made representations to the Government explaining that the register as suggested will be unsustainable but have not heard anything back.’

Francis Ingham, PRCA chief executive, on the lobbying consultation
'I’m not sure how informed some of the scrutineers of the PR industry are.’

Jane Wilson, CIPR chief executive, on the lobbying consultation

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