Public Affairs: A matter of trust

With politicians saying they don’t trust public affairs practitioners, Adam Hill asks how the relationship can improve

Politicians mistrust public affairs practitioners – so says a recent report by research company BPRI (PRWeek, 10 September). But if these specialists provide well-researched, accurate and timely information on the political state of play to clients, and understand the external and internal pressures that affect the way government works, doesn’t that make them a useful cog in the machinery of politics?

Part of the mistrust may be down to some lobbyists persuading clients that they have a unique ability to arrange meetings with politicians when it is often just a simple question of picking up the phone.

Various imbroglios over the years have left a sour taste. In the ‘cash for questions’ scandal, lobby firm Ian Greer Associates was alleged to have been paid to get Tory MPs to ask parliamentary questions. In 1998, ‘Drapergate’ saw a former adviser to then minister Peter Mandelson accused of boasting that lobbying clients could gain access to government bigwigs. And in Scotland, Beattie Media shut its lobbying arm in 1999 after one of its executives claimed he could influence the diaries of senior MSPs.

Battling a negative image

‘The power of those [incidents] to negatively influence the attitudes of parliamentarians, clients and potential clients should not be underestimated,’ says Weber Shandwick GJW Public Affairs MD Jon McLeod. ‘When dealing with politicians personally, we have to be clear about what we seek. But I don’t think anyone could swallow the idea of lobbyists going on a charm offensive. It would be a bit much to stomach.’

A little more transparency would not go amiss, however. Encouragingly, the formation several years ago of the Association of Professional Political Consultants (APPC) is seen as the industry’s long-term move to bring its activities out of the shadows. Citigate Public Affairs chairman and CEO Warwick Smith, the current chairman of the APPC, says: ‘Most of what we do these days is advise clients and then send them out to do it. It might be that because we are less visible than we used to be, people trust us less.’

Lobbyists are still viewed in some quarters as shadowy figures up to no good because they were happy to be thought of as such in the not-so-distant past. ‘We did cloak ourselves in mystique 15 years ago,’ admits Smith. ‘The industry thought that was good for business, and it was wrong. But the concept of us prowling the corridors of Westminster is misplaced, although I am sure there are some MPs who still believe it.’

Prowling or not, many lobbyists incur the distrust of MPs by spreading their net too wide – today arguing for the rights of fur traders, next week for the problems affecting Britain’s sugar-beet growers. If politicians don’t know who you are, and suspect your convictions are a commercial construct, then the issue of trust is likely to be tricky.

‘The “gun for hire” lobbyist is not an attractive beast,’ says Chelgate boss Terence Fane Saunders. ‘I think many [politicians] are cautious of synthetic friendships and two-faced loyalties. In their dealings with lobbyists and PA professionals, they find themselves responding to funded arguments and purchased opinions, rather than genuine convictions. They may also worry that the loyalties, trust and discretion you expect in a close working relationship with someone will always be secondary to the needs and interests of the client paymaster.’

One of the most interesting recent challenges to lobbying firms – and a possible root cause of ministers’ mistrust, as indicated in BPRI’s survey – came in 1997 after Labour’s landslide. Companies rushed to employ bright, and not so bright, young things who had been Labour researchers. ‘Up to then, the PA industry had been Tory,’ explains Bell Pottinger Public Affairs MD Peter Bingle. ‘It was terribly naïve.’

‘There is no doubt that, after 1997, some of the parliamentary Labour Party was a bit leery about dealing with lobbyists,’ agrees McLeod, adding that things seem to have moved on and the PA industry would like to think that the idea of companies presenting themselves as high-powered dating agencies for politicians and clients is woefully outdated.

‘But there are still too many who go about their business like that,’ says Bingle. ‘We should be engaging with CEOs, FDs and board members to approach government at a senior level, facilitating understanding, dialogue and transparency on both sides.’

An advisory role

And firms should certainly be getting clients, rather than themselves, into meetings with politicians. ‘PA works best if it promotes dialogue between the political community and the client community. Our role is to advise clients about public policy – and we would encourage them to interact directly with politicians,’ insists Politics International MD Andrew Dunlop. Despite this, lobbying can conjure up images of casual words dropped into bigwigs’ ears in smoke-filled rooms. ‘But it’s our clients that politicians want to hear from,’ concludes Dunlop.

Above all, PA practitioners are not there as matchmakers but as boardroom advisers on the key government issues affecting business. Bingle says: ‘Done badly, lobbying gets in the way. I completely understand the frustration felt by politicians over inept lobbying by companies that don’t understand the way government works. Done well, lobbying can be helpful to government as well as companies by giving a flavour of the view in a particular sector.’

Honesty and consistency are seen as vital. Long-term engagement with ministers is likely to have more beneficial effects than constantly cadging favours, while enabling your clients to make sure their own case to politicians will be looked on favourably.

Fane Saunders has one last piece of advice. ‘The other thing to avoid when approaching a politician is being falling-down drunk, something I have witnessed at more than one party conference. On the whole, it tends to count against you,’ he says.

The recipe for trust? It seems to be transparency, business acumen, integrity – and sobriety.

the politician’s view

Chris Grayling, Conservative MP for Epsom and Ewell and shadow minister for higher and further education, was formerly European marketing and business development director at Burson-Marsteller ‘My experience has been that very few [public affairs specialists] come to you with a real understanding of what you are doing. Too often, you have the sense of consultancies doing work, setting up meetings or organising events just so they can bill time to their clients. [But we listen] if they have a good and relevant story to tell, yes.

‘They tend to have people monitoring, for example, what is happening in Brussels and spot the issues on the way before they get to us at Westminster, or they identify a major shortcoming in something the Government is planning to do.

‘But time is short, so conversations need to be valuable. As an opposition spokesman, one of the tactics that public affairs people use is to bring me issues that are helpful to me in my job – issues I can use to put pressure on the Government. If what they suggest is true and valuable, and if it makes it easier to do my job, then they are much more likely to win my trust. But if they are not helpful, then the opposite will happen.

‘It’s no good trying to persuade me something is right, when I know it to be wrong, or that I should believe something I do not. It is much better to seek common ground. [When approaching a politician], try not to pretend you are their best friend. Once, one PA practitioner who knew me slightly phoned my office and gave my staff the impression we had been soul mates for years. All that did was to make me less willing to listen to what he had to say.’

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