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Sailing through stormy seas

Public affairs advisers must navigate increasingly choppy waters to protect client reputations, says Ben Stafford of Cicero Consulting.

What a difference a May makes. If UK politics wasn't already in flux, earlier this month ballot boxes across the UK and EU recast the political landscape, leaving even the most experienced public affairs heads spinning.

Bloody noses for the coalition parties, London Mayor candidate Ken Livingstone and outgoing French president Nicolas Sarkozy show that it does not matter where the ballot box is located when uncertainties created by the economic crisis remain the primary judge of politicians' fortunes.

These events make great copy for columnists, but business leaders and their public affairs advisers are tasked with ensuring brand and reputation are left intact. This is not easy when the public domain isn't so much in flux as in a perpetual spin-cycle.

Recent news from the financial services sector and 'results season' add to this, as does all the pressure brought to bear against politicians during the parliamentary expenses scandal and media professionals during the Leveson Inquiry.

As noted by Anthony Hilton in PRWeek recently, business leaders, such as RBS CEO Stephen Hester or outgoing Aviva CEO Andrew Moss, have directly experienced the governance backlash, whether their accusers have sat behind Select Committee benches or on shareholder panels.

Behaviour and public perception matter and they can often be the difference between a shot across the bow or a direct hit on an organisation's reputation and share price.

'It's the economy stupid' has ceased to be a cautionary observation just for vote-seeking politicians and now captures the risks facing businesses too. Austerity politics has brought unprecedented focus and effectively blurred the lines between UK plc and frontline politics. Whether an organisation or individual answers to an electorate, regulators or shareholders, companies operate in a world where more value than ever is placed on effectiveness, transparency and probity.

Voters, politicians and shareholders are increasingly agitated, so pressure on business leaders turns inwards and raises questions about the value provided by PR and public affairs advisers, in-house and otherwise.

But the current political and economic maelstrom also creates opportunities to demonstrate value, whether through strategic counsel, or successful policy campaigns such as the Barnardo's example (see page 4-7). Conversely, questions will be asked when that value isn't evident.

Which brings me to the Government's proposal for a statutory register of lobbyists. I was pleased by the guiding principles set out in the Government's January consultation. Recognition of the importance of lobbying as a crucial function in the democratic process is wonderful, as is recognition of the need for openness and transparency.

But the devil is in the detail. There is real risk that lobbying will be too narrowly defined by being based on a person or their employment, rather than the wider activity they undertake. Universality is key here. Lobbyists know what lobbying is, when they are doing it and to whom they or their clients are lobbying.

Overlooking the broad range of individuals and organisations who engage with the policy process will guarantee poor legislation and fail to address legitimate concerns about those who have no interest in ethics or transparency. If this chance is missed, it will be a wasted opportunity for both lobbyists and the Government.

Ben Stafford is director of UK Public Affairs at Cicero Consulting, and a member of the CIPR Public Affairs Committee

VIEWS IN BRIEF

The Government is proposing a statutory lobbying register. How happy would you be to publish a full list of clients?

Perfectly happy - we already do this via the APPC's quarterly register.

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

Change is most likely when a cause passes the common sense test, has some level of cross-party support and comes to life at just the right moment. High profile support also helps - see Joanna Lumley and the Gurkha Justice Campaign. A colleague led a campaign to ban mobile phone use by drivers that succeeded by following these rules.

 

From PRWeek's public affairs supplement, May 2012

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