It's how you play the game

Armed with the right tools and experience, lobbyists can be effective, ethical - and laudable, says Lionel Zetter & Charlie O'Rourke of AIMediaComms.

With the Government pledging to introduce a statutory register of lobbyists, there is much debate about how to define lobbying and who should be included on the register. In Lionel Zetter's opinion it is quite simple: lobbying is the act of seeking to influence the public policy agenda, with the aim of shaping legislation or the regulatory environment.

Coming up with a definition of a lobbyist is even more straightforward. If you lobby, then you are a lobbyist. If you are paid to do so, you are a professional lobbyist. If you are a professional lobbyist, you should be on the Government's proposed statutory register. 'Simples'.

But there is an even bigger debate focused on whether lobbying is a good or bad thing, or indeed whether it should be allowed. Apart from a few diehard anti-lobbying campaigners and left-wing journalists, most people think that lobbying should be permitted, even if it is subject to a degree of scrutiny and regulation.

Of course, being permissible is not the same as it being laudable. In Zetter's view, lobbying is laudable for several reasons. It helps to redress the balance between under-resourced opposition parties and the governing party, which has an army of civil servants and a battalion of special advisers. It also produces better policy and legislation by making sure that every side of an argument is examined and tested. But lobbying can only be laudable (as opposed to beneficial) if it is performed transparently and ethically.

But lobbying ethically is not enough. You also need to lobby effectively. To do so, you have to research the background of the issue in question extensively and exhaustively. Your case needs to be prepared in a clear, logical fashion, taking into account all of the counter-arguments which will be deployed against it.

And you need to lobby the right people in the right way at the right time.

Being timely and targeted in your lobbying means having access to the right experience and the right tools (such as those from AIMediaComms). You have to have research and monitoring and databases that tell you who is who, who does what - and how to contact them. It used to be said 'it is who you know, not what you know'. Current thinking is the reverse of this. The answer is that it is about both.

If you have an existing relationship with key opinion-formers and decision-makers, and that relationship is based on trust, then that can only help your case. That trust will be based on previous experience: have you worked with this person before? Were they honest and efficient, and did they make it easier for you to do your job? If the answer is yes, then you have the basis for a viable relationship.

Charlie O'Rourke believes trust is vital in all stakeholder interactions, not just in political lobbying. The Leveson Inquiry, for example, is putting the relationship between the press, police and politicians under the microscope.

Though Leveson is not expected to report until the autumn, it is safe to assume that he will recommend that all interactions be transparent, consistent and accurate and that the best way to prove that they are so is to have the right systems in place to audit who said what to whom, and who met whom.

Zetter believes that with the right experience and tools, lobbyists can be effective and ethical, and even perform a function which is not just legitimate but laudable - and beneficial to the democratic process.

Lionel Zetter is senior counsel at APCO Worldwide and the publisher of Zetter's Online, which is hosted on AIMediaComms' Vuelio platform. Charlie O'Rourke is managing director of AIMediaComms.

VIEWS IN BRIEF

What has been your best example of prompting public policy change?

The Airport Operators Association in last year's campaign to get Air Passenger Duty frozen. It was a great campaign based on meticulous research, and the formation of a broad alliance called 'Fair Tax on Flying' swung it. We have also helped to shift government thinking on the need to increase airport capacity.

Which MPs will be setting the parliamentary agenda in 2017?

There are a raft of bright independent-minded, newly elected MPs. They won't wait 20 years to make their mark in the way their predecessors seemed content to do.

 

From PRWeek's public affairs supplement, May 2012

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