'Rogue lobbyists could face prison' - ran a headline in the Sunday
Herald the day before the Scottish Parliament's Standards Committee
began consultation with lobbyists over proposed regulation in August. A
delicious irony given that, as Mike Rumbles, Lib Dem convenor of
theCommittee points out, from its very inception two years ago, the
watchwords of the devolved Scottish political system have been 'openness
Yet now the committee is seeking to introduce a system of regulation
deemed too draconian even by the Nolan committee and, according to the
Herald, is recommending that those who err be punished with £5,000
fines or even prison. As Alex Pagett, Royal Bank of Scotland MD of group
corporate communications, points out, this does seem to be 'taking a
sledgehammer to crack a nut'.
'It is sad because this country is uniquely different from England in
that you have got 50 million all struggling to get their point made and
up here we have this little village. What we are trying to do is to
create a dialogue and all this is an effort to stifle it. In PR terms it
is a disaster,' he says.
As the industry waits to hear if the committee will be willing to take
oral evidence - if not on the principles, then at least the practice of
the proposed regulations - I met with a roundtable of PA consultants,
government officials, NGOs and corporate communications directors. The
group, convened by John Gerrie, co-founder of Metropublic (one of a
coupl eof recent start-ups by Weber Shandwick alumni), talked about the
likely impact on government relations and the opportunities and
challenges contained therein.
Angela Casey, convenor of the Association for Scottish Public Affairs
(ASPA), who has condemned the plans as 'unfair and unworkable' was one
of a number of players unable to attend. But two of the most vocal panel
members, Pagett and ASPA member and McGrigor Donald public policy
director Adam Bruce had recently attended a meeting for the Scottish
Council for Development and Industry at which Rumbles gave the first
real response subsequent to the close of the summer consultation period.
They say the news is not good.
The prospect of a registration scheme for lobbyists appears a forgone
conclusion, the industry's recommendation of Nolan-style self-regulation
having been given short shrift. Rumbles has also made it clear that his
target is the commercial lobbying community - the only questions now
remaining are what exactly commercial lobbyists will be asked to
disclose in terms of client lists, fees and the business they are
Bruce is obviously dissatisfied at the level of dialogue between the
committee and the industry, saying: 'ASPA is still extremely concerned
not so much about the ideas of registration, as obviously there are
several countries where registration of lobbyists is in practice. What
we are concerned about are the mechanisms.'
Pagett was also at pains to point out that while the proposed
registration was a 'knee-jerk' reaction to the well-known 1999 cash for
access scandal, it wouldn't stop another 'lobbygate'. Bruce says: 'I
think that the saddest aspect of all of this is that post-devolution,
there was an intention for greater openness and accountability and it
would be very sad if this process puts up a barrier.'
As he points out, most of the existing registration schemes - such as
the US Congress Lobbying Disclosure Act - are based upon contacts with
legislators. However, the proposed Scottish system includes all
provision of information and advice to companies as well as direct
contact with MSPs undertaken on their behalf. It is a cruel blow to an
industry seeking to carve itself out a broader role than that of the
In fact, among the consultancies present, such as Weber Shandwick and
Countrywide Porter Novelli, there is a real fear that the imprecise
definition of lobbying by the committee will prove the last nail in the
coffin of an already beleaguered industry. 'It will drive a lot of the
existing business that currently resides with public affairs
organisations back in-house which is obviously going to affect income
and will to some extent damage the Scottish economy,' claims Scottish
Public Relations Consultants Association chair and WSW Scotland MD Nora
'Why should there be any lobbying in Scotland if it all has to be done
in-house? Why not use a Southern-based organisation? You would not have
to register who you were talking with or reveal the fees associated. In
many cases, clients are going to be very unhappy to reveal how much they
are paying lobbyists,' says Farrell.
Ian Coldwell, chair of the IPR in Scotland and Pagoda PR managing
director, goes further to suggest that UK agencies with a presence in
Brussels may be able to circumvent the regulations by meeting MSPs off
home territory: 'I am not convinced that the Scottish parliament will be
able to exercise powers outside of Scotland and this could lead to
discrimination against indigenous Scottish-based companies.'
Aside from the inevitable self-interests of the PA industry, there were
some broader concerns voiced about the impact that restrictions will
have on the broader democratic process. Farrell argues that the squeeze
on lobbying firms will restrict the share of voice of smaller companies
that do not have large in-house PA resources and would be more likely to
bring in consultancies on a project basis to deal with specific
Gerrie illustrates the point: 'If you were lobbying on behalf of a
pharmaceutical giant then the largesse of your resource would enable you
to make your case very acceptable to parliamentarians. But if you were a
health charity, for example, you would be disenfranchised because there
was nobody who you could turn to and buy advice, or share of voice.'
There is also the issue of confidentiality. If the small health charity
hired a consultancy, for example, and disclosed the nature of the advice
given, fees and MSPs spoken to - then a large industrial firm taking an
opposing position can glean this valuable information for free.
Such 'live' registration is also likely to make companies less inclined
to brief MSPs on commercially sensitive developments in their
The theory is that while a company may wish to brief MSPs to avoid them
being caught on the hop, registration would make such an act tantamount
to going public with an announcement and in the case of quoted companies
could be price sensitive.
Farrell argues that there are also moral implications because 'if a
company makes a decision but hasn't consulted at a parliamentary level,
they are making a decision based on a commercial concerns rather than
looking at the bigger picture.'
Health Education Board for Scotland head of public affairs Martin
Raymond believes, however, that the enforced changes in the relationship
between MSPs and companies that seek to lobby could lead to the creation
of a new form of lobbying: 'It is all completely new and many
parliamentarians are searching for a style and way of communicating with
constituents and interested parties.'
So in what form will this new type of relationship manifest itself? 'In
creating opportunities for dialogue between elected members and
organisations or companies who want to speak to them,' says Gerrie.
'Often the only opportunity companies have to speak to an elected
representative is when something bad happens, such as the closure of a
factory. We need to create opportunities to bring elected members
actually into businesses on a regular basis. The challenge is to have
sufficient clout within the company to say, I think if we took this
initiative on the environment, we could then create opportunities for
political representatives to be involved.'
Attention is also likely to move from Parliament to the Scottish
Executive and its agencies. Scottish Executive head of new media and
presentation Roger Williams is focusing much of his energies on
promoting partnerships between the Executive, its agencies and
Scotland's enterprise culture: 'It is incumbent upon corporations and
plcs to see if they can help constructively with campaigns we are
'There is potential for government and business to work much more
closely together because it is a much smaller state and those that are
too focused on Westminster are going to miss that opportunity. The
mechanism of competition in the market will show this as time goes by,'
says CPN director Anne McMunn.
Pagett agrees: 'The opportunities particularly for the commercial sector
are there for the taking, particularly in a country such as Scotland
because there is a small population and the proximity between the
Raymond, says, however, that the Health Education Board are already
experimenting and that some very interesting partnerships are beginning
to emerge such as ICL, BT and Microsoft's involvement with the charity
Young Scot, which he chairs.
Indeed, there are no shortage of examples. The Scottish Community
Foundation communications director Carole Gray points to the banking
sector and, in particular, Lloyds TSB which has worked with the Scottish
Executive on addressing hardship created by the foot-and-mouth
Of course, CSR is not new and is certainly not unique to Scotland, but
practitioners argue that the economies of scale makes it easier to
develop and facilitate relationships between government and local
businesses, as long as it is possible to overcome what Pagett describes
as an indigenous 'arrogance' and disregard of reputation's impact.
What is clear is that relations between government and commerce are at
something of a watershed. There are enormous opportunities but great
hurdles to overcome. A decision is expected by the end of October on
whether the committee will take oral evidence. The arguments are
persuasive, the industry should hope they are willing to listen.
SCOTTISH EXECUTIVE DEVELOPING COMMUNICATIONS
Prior to his untimely demise, Scotland's First Minister Donald Dewar
introduced a policy that is likely to have a lasting impact on the PR
industry in Scotland.
On his instructions, the Scottish Executive, plus all executive agencies
and government departments now have to undertake an annual audit of
their PR spend, declaring all contacts and contracts.
IPR Scottish chairman Ian Coldwell believes the move is 'indicative of a
culture of suspicion of PR consultants in Scotland' and suspects that it
will lead to 'an increasing nervousness in the public sector about using
consultants with more emphasis on building in-house resources.' PR and
ad agencies with a PR brief currently under contract are Barkers
Scotland, Foulds and Yellow M.
The in-house resource at the executive consists of approximately 65
staff including the recently appointed chief press officer Colin Imrie
(PRWeek, 31 August). Imrie oversees around 50 staff including a
strategic communications unit unashamedly modelled on the comms
machinery at Number 10.
Roger Williams, heads the new media and presentation (communications)
department of around ten staff. This includes a three-man executive
online team, plus an advertising and marketing department, whose funding
appears to be steadily increasing as the devolved political vehicle
focuses on its branding.
According to Williams, the past two years have seen a considerable
growth in the importance of new media, marketing and advertising to the
new Parliament, with a considerable emphasis on promoting Scotland
As part of this drive, Williams works closely with the Scottish
Executive-funded Scottish Enterprise, VisitScotland (formerly the
Scottish Tourist Board), Health Education Board for Scotland and Locate
Scotland, the body largely responsible for attracting inward
Among the initiatives to come out of the Scottish Executive's
communications department in recent months is an online news service,
first proposed by the Deputy Minister for Finance Peter Peacock.
The online news service (www. scotland.gov.uk), which launched in
September was overseen by Roger Williams and created by William Paul,
formerly editor of The Scotsman's online service.
'The Scottish Executive website was pretty workmanlike prior to the
relaunch. Ministers wanted to put news online but they were basically
just putting up press releases. We looked to Number 10 for inspiration
and the BBC, but wanted it to be different,' says Williams.
The site is intended as a complement to current media relations and PR.
It is divided into three distinct areas: news, publications and
consultations, as well as the usual links and contracts.
The news area includes a weekly review of Executive events; records of
lobby briefingsand a First Ministers question section, which it is
intended will soon include a video stream, planned to be up and running
by the end of the year.
Aside from the drier aspects designed for hardened political hacks,
there is a junior exec section aimed specifically at schools. The
Executive plans to conduct an e-mail marketing campaign to all schools
in Scotland to draw attention to the site - and is currently liaising
with the local authorities for the necessary permission. There are also
plans to include a Number 10-style walk through of Bute House, home of
the First Minister.
The Government is generally behind on developments in new media and this
is now about catching up. But Williams says that they will be ahead of
Whitehall: 'We are complementing an existing press office service - it
is an additional way of communicating with the public. A lot of the
stories that would come out in a press release just wouldn't be used by
the media as they are too minor.' The service is currently free but the
Scottish Executive will be introducing a subscription service for e-mail