PUBLIC AFFAIRS: The death of advocacy? - PRWeek rounds up stakeholder opinion on claims that the art of the traditional lobbyist is close to extinction

Advocacy, the trade of the traditional lobbyist, became distinctly

unfashionable a couple of years ago. The industry backlash to media

scrutiny of misdemeanours might have led to the supposition that no

longer do lobbyists and public affairs practitioners practice

traditional advocacy - the physical representation of a client's

interests to a source of influence - be it an MP, civil servant or other

decision-maker. In fact, the industry has been at pains to point out

that the perception of PA consultants as corporate spivs having quiet

words in the ears of friendly MPs or ministers is increasingly

unjustified. But is advocacy really on the way out? PRWeek decided to

ask those four groups of people directly affected by lobbying - MPs,

civil servants, clients and journalists - whether in their experience

the traditional lobbyist is a dying breed.



There is no doubt that in the wake of the anti-sleaze Nolan committee's

attempts to instill a sense of openness in a previously murky area, the

sector has battled to establish that this sort of lobbying has been

replaced by a wider, integrated comms effort to pressurise policy-makers

through diverse channels.



'We've seen quite a dramatic change in how our work is perceived,'

reports Alan Butler, Burson-Marsteller head of public affairs. He says

that when he worked for another consultancy in 1995 they 'proudly

boasted' that they didn't speak to journalists and only did government

relations. Today, there is a recognition that a range of stakeholders

influence the process. And they, in turn, need to be influenced. 'I

would say that there are a range of pressure points that you need to

think about,' he says.



Those pressure points vary according to the issue but tend to include

the media, academics, local communities NGOs and other stakeholders or

interest groups that might influence decision-makers. Many public

affairs practitioners assert that the influence of the media, in

particular, has grown under New Labour, partly as a result of the

Government's massive parliamentary majority. There is less need to pay

attention to the opposition and more time devoted to other

opinion-formers. 'If you seek to influence this Government then by all

means lobby directly but they are also exceptionally sensitive to media

comment,' argues Graham Macmillan, Fishburn Hedges head of public

affairs. 'Power is more diffuse and lobbying has to recognise that

fact.'



Butler agrees, suggesting that the 'Americanisation' of the public

affairs industry has had its part to play. He says that as more of the

UK public affairs industry has come under US control, so the industry's

ethos has changed: 'Public affairs in the US looks more like a mix of

corporate affairs and lobbying and the UK has begun to reflect that

approach.'



The trick lies in creating an environment under which elected

representatives are naturally led towards the view that fits most

closely with your organisation's goals.



'You've got to make it as easy as possible for the ultimate set of

decision-makers to make their decision in your favour,' says Jon McLeod,

Weber Shandwick PA senior director.



It is not so much that advocacy is dead, but more that it has expanded

from one-on-one to a more pluralist approach. In-house people at client

companies appear to be using them more for strategic input as they

increasingly demonstrate an ability to contact decision makers

themselves.



Despite change, some take care to point out that government and the

civil service in particular are still old-fashioned and still value

traditional ways of being handled. Handwritten letters and bound

presentations that look as if they emerged from the 1950s still carry

weight. Charles Miller, a Citigate Public Affairs consultant, notes that

the 'call-back' factor is still important for consultants. Can you get

decision-makers to return your calls and enter a discussion regarding

your client?



He believes that public affairs has become much more of a

'coalition-building' process as different interests are woven together

to form a united front: 'People will tell you that there have been

enormous changes but the basic principles of working with government

haven't changed.'



MPs



Do MPs think that advocacy is dead? Most of those contacted by PRWeek

felt unable to comment on trends in the role of PA advisers, but they

have firm views. The most frequently expressed advice is not to bombard

MPs with letters, e-mails, leaflets and other literature in the hope

that something might reach its target.



Despite these complaints, most MPs and their assistants felt advocacy

was a valuable part of the democratic process, allowing ideas and

interests to bubble up from local communities and organised interest

groups.



'The lobbying of parliamentarians is quite extensive,' says Ben Chapman,

Labour MP for Wirral South on Merseyside. 'I have no evidence of any

drift to or from political lobbyists, but they still have a critical

role to play because of their understanding of the processes and the way

it's done.'



Chapman says that it doesn't usually matter for him whether

organisations make their approach directly or hire consultants to be

their public face 'Sometimes it will be important for them to put the

case directly. There is nothing to stop them developing or recruiting

the necessary talent although smaller organisations may find they need

it for a limited timeframe.'



Perhaps unusually for a former Burson-Marsteller PR consultant, Chris

Grayling prefers approaches from a company or organisation, rather than

from a lobbying firm. The new Conservative MP for Epsom & Ewell notes

that appeals or pressure directly from constituents are going to have

the greatest effect on an MP - even if written on behalf of a company or

organisation.



Next in the queue will be an approach related to a policy area of

interest.



'No MP can do everything and they need to be selective about who they

target.' He says that, as a member of the transport select committee, he

has brought himself up-to-date on related issues and is receptive to

approaches from companies or pressure groups in the field.



That is backed up by Caroline Spelman, Conservative MP for the Meriden

constituency, between Birmingham and Coventry. She says she has seen

many lobbyists from special health interest groups in her role as a

health frontbencher:



'I found their visits informative and helpful just before adjournment

debates or when preparing amendments to legislation.' Similarly, Chapman

acknowledges that all parliamentary groups can be an important part of

the consultative process, by definition, showing an interest in and

specialist understanding of the subject under consideration.



What then should be avoided when trying to get an MP on side? 'Attempts

at material reward would turn MPs off,' warns Chapman. 'Excess pressure,

excess material and excess hospitality would tend to have the same

effect A measured approach would be welcomed.'



So is advocacy dead for MPs? No. But direct dialogue with businesses and

organisations is just as important.



CIVIL SERVANTS



Today's public affairs practitioners don't just have to think about

integrating their campaigns with the rest of their communications

programme.



It has to be delivered to a wider group of decision-makers, too.

Concentrating efforts solely on Westminster is unlikely to satisfy the

needs of most companies. Indeed, local authorities, national assemblies,

the European Union and other supranational bodies all have their part to

play.



Despite growing evidence of in-house departments' ability to speak for

themselves to a variety of stakeholders, civil servants contacted by

PRWeek were quite confident advocacy still existed.



David Wilson, a senior consultant at Lexington Communciations and former

Lewisham Borough Council deputy mayor pointed to the growing awareness

of local authorities in shaping wider opinion, and claimed that the one

key finding of his analysis of the public affairs attitude of in-house

and consultancy personnel was that, 'many companies still ignore local

politicians.'



They do so at their peril. Wilson argues that local residents are

increasingly prepared to form action groups that can have a real effect

on the plans of large companies on a local level.



'People have become very good at organising themselves around an issue

and campaigning against it. We've seen a definite trend towards such

small-scale action groups in recent times and only a few companies have

woken up to the need to talk to them directly,' he adds.



According to one local government officer at another London borough, in

his 15 years of working there he had seen no change in the role of

lobbyists - advocacy as far as he is concerned is alive and well. But he

can see change in the way that local groups marshal themselves to react

to different issues.



Another civil servant from a government body would not elaborate, but

says, 'I have seen no real change in the process.'



The civil servants commented that lobbyists could help to create

dialogue between local businesses and organisations and local MPs. And

that they often acted as facilitators to bring those with business

interests, both public affairs consultants and in-house people, together

with influencers and decision-makers. So, as far as civil servants are

concerned, advocacy is alive and well.



CLIENTS



A key pressure on public affairs consultancies in recent years has been

the changing capabilities of the clients themselves. With sophisticated

in-house teams, many larger companies and organisations have started

looking for a different kind of service from their consultants and

changing the way in which they structure their approach. There is far

less reliance on PA consultants to provide advocacy on the behalf of

clients, and more of an emphasis on the provision of strategic

counsel.



'The traditional barriers between public affairs and other

communications disciplines are breaking down,' says Ian Wright, Diageo

group communications director and IPR president. 'The whole business is

one in which PR people are having to provide advocacy, but they are

using a range of tools.'



Aware of those pressures, the Association of British Insurers recently

integrated its PA with its media relations. Alan Leaman, head of media

and public affairs says: 'It's partly to do with the observation that

this government is more aware of the media, but it's also a secular,

long-term trend. The media plays a bigger role in all of our lives. The

population is less deferential and more sceptical. If you've got a case

to argue then you've got to argue it through the media, too.'



Others assert they have always taken an integrated approach. Neil

Sherlock, KPMG partner of public affairs, believes such trends mean

larger organisations are looking for advice, strategic planning and

background from their lobbying consultants rather than advocacy:

'They're not talking to people on your behalf but advising you on the

impact of legislation or government proposals.'



PricewaterhouseCoopers head of public affairs Chris Lowe, notes that

despite the pressure for change some things stay the same: 'The

discipline is still about getting the right message to the right person

at the right time. The volume of correspondence is now far higher so

you've got to try that bit harder to get your message across.' Lowe

adds: 'I've been doing public affairs for 12 years and have never used a

PA consultancy to advocate on behalf of a company.' As far as client

companies are concerned, those that PRWeek spoke to were emphatic that

as more of them practise public affairs and integrate it with other

communications disciplines, 'traditional' advocacy is dying, if not

dead.



JOURNALISTS



Integrated public affairs campaigns may be the order of the day but it

could be more the result of a global trend than any direct reaction to

the current UK government. Certainly, ministers are more paranoid about

media coverage than any previous administration - witness the Jo Moore

scandal in recent weeks. But there is also a wider recognition of the

need for companies and organisations to manage their reputations.



The Sunday Times political editor -in-waiting David Cracknell believes

the Government's massive majority has had an impact on the process:

'It's definitely changed and the media has become much more important.'

Whereas in the past a backbench MP could ruffle a lot of feathers by

making a few noises, nowadays PA specialists recognise they may gain

more of an effect through the media.



Cracknell suggests lobbyists have more of a part to play in the PR

process and regularly push to get stories on the front page, knowing

that ministers will take note.



Not surprisingly, few journalists believe the power of the media has

declined. However, The Sunday Telegraph political editor Joe Murphy does

note that some ministers seem to favour a clear, well-defined briefing

from a good lobbyist than having an issue raised through the press:

'This government loves lobbyists, it likes campaigns boiled down to

simple positions and well-briefed argument. It's a government of

lawyers.' He believes that sometimes that can mean that journalists are

shut out of a process in which they would have previously been included

- with handshakes, rather than off-the-record press briefings, having

the desired affect on government. 'Some of the big firms are not using

those guys (lobbyists) to generate press stories so much as using them

to maintain access.'



That being the case advocacy is anything but dead and buried. Still,

there are plenty of journalists willing to acknowledge the growing use

of the media by PA practitioners. Rebecca Smithers, The Guardian

education correspondent, believes companies, organisations and their

consultants have become adept at spinning their story away from

specialist journalists towards the lobby correspondent. The idea is that

the generalist political journalists may be less knowledgeable on the

subject in question and so more likely to cover it. She should know -

she was formerly one of the parliamentary gang herself.



Such a targeted approach doesn't mean the vast majority of PR and PA

practitioners have become any more adept at sending their releases to

the correct journalists. It's an age-old complaint, echoed by MPs, but

e-mail has made the problem more acute. Murphy, Cracknell and Smithers

all raise the issue without any prompting.



The consensus is that the current government loves lobbyists and that

advocacy is by no means dead, but as it pays more heed to the media than

before that the media are being increasingly targeted by PA specialists.



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