Feature: Conflict of conduct

The Association of Professional Political Consultants wants to improve PA's image. Steve Hemsley reports.

The art of lobbying is as old as government itself. Unfortunately, the reputation of public affairs professionals has often been as poor as the image of those they seek to persuade -the perception of PA practitioners has not been helped by high-profile scandals.

In the mid-1990s there was the infamous cash-for-questions affair involving Ian Greer Associates. This was followed in 1998 by ‘Drapergate' - when Derek Draper, one-time aide to Peter Mandelson, was embroiled in a cash-for-access row involving Labour politicians.

‘Cash for dinner'
During the recent party conference season, the PA profession again came under media scrutiny when The Times political correspondent Sam Coates reported that access to Cabinet ministers in Brighton was being made avail­able to businessmen. The cost for access was, allegedly, £5,000 - via Bell Pottinger Public Affairs (PRWeek, 29 September).

BPPA rightly insisted that lobbying is a legitimate activity and that any charges were to cover the cost of entertaining.

The episode illustrated how the media will always be quick to pounce on any story with the merest whiff that anything underhand is going on. BPPA's ‘cash for dinner' row made front-page news, and the result has been more pressure on lobbying consultants and in-house PA departments to demonstrate their transparency. When the media attack lobbying in this way, one might expect the PA industry to close ranks. But Gill Morris, chairman of the Association of Professional Political Consultants (APPC), criticised BPPA in the original Times article. She called the agency's conference package ‘unhelpful' at a time when the body is trying to promote honesty, integrity and transparency.

And Morris would, of course, deny that her attack on BPPA, one of the largest PA consultancies, was due to it not being a member of the APPC. When lobbying is practised well, it uses persuasion and reasoning, not the exchange of cash - the mantra stressed by the APPC to MPs, journalists and the public since it was set up 11 years ago as a result of Drapergate.

In light of Morris's criticism, how will the APPC act to ensure that the industry sufficiently regulates itself? How is the association - and others - attempting to improve the PA industry's reputation.
 

Does the APPC have teeth?
Critics of the APPC claim the media's insatiable appetite for negative stories about lobbying demonstrates that the trade body is failing to explain the role of the industry to outsiders - and that it lacks teeth. Andrew Caesar-Gordon, ex-lobbyist at Westminster Strategy and now MD at media training firm Electric Airwaves, says the APPC's regulatory role is undermined by the fact that it cannot control non-members. ‘Repeated stories alleging malpractice shows the APPC has either failed to communicate to the media what is legitimate lobbying, or has failed to establish a tight enough code that removes doubt,' he says.

Pete Digger, deputy MD of Global Government Relations, the PA arm of law firm DLA Piper, claims the APPC is out of touch with the industry. ‘The APPC is trying to be judge, jury and executioner of an industry that
has changed enormously since the body was set up. Things have moved on,' he says.

DLA's public affairs arm was founded by Tim Clement-Jones, who combines his role of chairman with being the Liberal Democrats' spokesman on culture and sport in the House of Lords. In the APPC's eyes this creates a conflict of interest - its Code of Conduct states that members must not employ sitting MPs or peers.

Morris respects her detractors, but is adamant that the APPC's teeth remain sharp and that it is not afraid to show them. Back in 1998, the association gave consultants GJW and GPC Market Access (the company that employed Draper) 24 hours to withdraw their membership -  and they did. In July last year the APPC management committee met to discuss Media Strategy's alleged breach of the code following its appointment of Lord O'Neil to the agency's advisory board.

In the end Media Strategy resigned from the APPC before it could be suspended prior to any investigation. This move annoyed APPC's management, who immediately changed the rules so future members will no longer be able to resign without being investigated.

‘We do our best as a self-regulating body. I am confident our rules are strong enough,' says Morris. ‘They have to be tough because journalists will always be interested in negative stories about lobbying. The industry must be as transparent as possible and the APPC must act when it has to.'
 

The Code of Conduct
There is one clause in the APPC's Code of Conduct that really gets non-members' backs up. It is the first part of Clause 8, which states that political consultants must not employ an MP, MEP, sitting peer or Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland legislator. Critics of the rule claim that having legislators on board can make a consultancy's work more effective and credible. They also point out it is normal for corporations to use such people on their boards.

The APPC takes the purist's stance in this debate, with Morris claiming members need special rules because they must be seen as whiter than white. ‘If you are going to be trans­parent you must ban the practice of paying legislators, in the same way we insist that all members disclose their client list,' says Morris. ‘Members need to abide by the code and the media and politicians need to know there is a code in place.'

There are 17 clauses to the code. The first states that political consultants must not do anything detrimental to the reputation of the APPC or the profession in general; the last states that consultants must not abuse the facilities of government.

In the summer, the APPC introduced a new Clause 9 to try and accommodate non-members with links with legislators. To paraphrase the rule: political consultants must ensure they do not benefit unreasonably through the actions of a third party that, if undertaken by the consultant, would be considered a breach of the code. ‘The spirit of Clause 9 is to ensure that where, for example, a lord works for an agency as a company owner or board member - but not directly as a political consultant - he should not operate to breach the code,' explains Morris.

Media Strategy could effectively rejoin under the terms of this clause, but managing director Charles Lewington says this is unlikely. He suggests the APPC should concentrate on raising management standards within its membership rather than stopping legislators from working with agencies.

The PRCA has worked closely with the APPC to develop effective codes of conduct for members and non-members alike. Rod Cartwright, chairman of the PRCA's public affairs committee, says more discussion is needed on the issue of consultancies paying legislators. At present, the PRCA's own code effectively mirrors that of the APPC, but it is considering introducing a new Clause 9 itself to clarify the situation for its members.

Currently, the PRCA's code states that members must ensure that the management activities of their directors (executive and non-executive) and corporate advisers do not cause consultants to breach the code.  ‘Things have moved on and there is no need for a blanket ban [on working with parliamentarians] any more. The message that sends out is that we as professionals do not trust ourselves to have relationships with parliamentarians,' says Cartwright.

Weber Shandwick chairman of UK public affairs Jon McLeod says it is important that all the clauses of the APPC code evolve to meet the changing needs of the industry. ‘The key is to keep the code simple and not to be overelaborate. The APPC needs to set clear principles,' he says.

Membership
In August, the APPC announced that its membership had reached record levels following the enrolment of Chambré Public Affairs, Four Communications and Lansons Public Affairs. The body's 34 members employ 540 consultants, and advise 1,200 clients. Morris insists it is  possible that the APPC will one day represent all PA consultants (currently it accounts for around 80 per cent). But many would argue that the absence of some high-profile firms is a millstone around the APPC's neck.

Morris says she had to avoid the gaze of BPPA managing director Peter Bingle during the Conservative Party conference. Bingle is adamant that the body is not fulfilling its role. ‘Members of the APPC were irritated by our actions but we did nothing wrong,' he insists. ‘The APPC was created in a panic and has been defensive since day one. There is nothing it could do to make me want to join.'

Morris says non-member consultancies probably believe they enjoy a competitive advantage by remaining outside of the APPC - and not having to abide by its code. This is something she is determined to disprove: ‘I want to show non-members that it is better for everyone to work as one industry and for all consultancies to be transparent and demonstrate an ethical approach. The more members we get signed up, the stronger the industry will be.'

The chairman has some strong support among her members. WS's McLeod believes members must be more outspoken to counter misunderstandings about the role PA consultants play. ‘We need to be tougher on agencies that operate on the margins of integrity and outside the APPC. They can create problems for everyone if the image of PA is damaged,' he says. But the group wants to leave the door open to consultants that refuse to join. Clause 9, for instance, would allow consultancies such as BPPA and DLA Piper to enrol - and Media Strategy could rejoin. ‘I would welcome Media Strategy back tomorrow,' says Morris.

Another non-member of note is Sovereign Strategy, a company that has been the subject of sleaze allegations over its links to publications. It insists it acts transparently and lists clients on its website. ‘We have not ruled out applying for APPC membership,' says executive chairman Alan Donnelly. ‘The question is how to create a body where the emphasis is as much about professional development as  self-regulation.'
 
In-house members
Because businesses and not-for-profit organisations alike are increasingly appreciating the need to engage in government relations, many have called for the APPC to accept in-house PA consultants as members.

Industry estimates suggest that the in-house sector represents more than 70 per cent of the PA industry. ‘There is an ongoing discussion taking place because we believe that anyone who interacts with legislators should enjoy a level playing field,' says Morris.

The APPC teamed up with the PRCA and the CIPR's government affairs group this year to define a generic set of principles for consultancy-based, in-house and freelance PA professionals. The four bodies last met on 22 September to discuss honesty, openness, integrity and propriety - these values will be finalised before the end of the year.

Ben Atfield, director at PA recruiter Ellwood & Atfield, says the in-house sector needs to be represented by a trade association, although he is unsure whether the APPC is appropriate. ‘In-house work is more aligned to
corporate communications,' he says.

A closer link between the APPC and in-house PA teams could help improve the training of new recruits. One
company to undertake training with the APPC is EDS, which manages the IT systems of a number of government departments, including the MoD and the Department for Work and Pensions. Its director of marketing and comms, Malcolm George, says: ‘The APPC does a good job and many of the same rules do apply in-house, but it would probably have to be individuals rather than companies who become members. There does seem to be a different perception among MPs towards agency consultants and in-house staff. In my experience they have a more positive view of in-house PA teams because it is clearer who they are representing.'

There have even been discussions in the European Parliament about whether lobbying by special interest groups, charities and NGOs should be more tightly regulated. In a letter to the Financial Times earlier this year, Silvana Koch-Mehrin MEP - who heads the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe in Brussels, and is a vocal campaigner for greater transparency among NGOs - caused controversy when she suggested that NGOs which receive EU funding should not lobby against the union's policies.

Morris still clearly has her work cut out, but her message is firm: the few cannot effectively alter for the better the image of the many.

POLITICIANS' VIEW OF LOBBYISTS

The Hansard Society will in January publish a report detailing how MPs, public affairs professionals and political journalists view the effectiveness of lobbying by businesses, charities and special interest groups.

Called ‘Lobbying: friend or foe?', it will indicate that while MPs say 91 per cent of charities and 88 per cent of special interest groups are effective at communicating their lobbying messages, only 57 per cent of businesses are perceived as effective.

‘There is a perception of lobbying among the public and many others that it is all about big business buying big favours, but the results indicate that business is not lobbying very well,' says Hansard director Clare Ettinghausen. ‘This may seem surprising considering the amount of money spent on public affairs, but MPs receive so much communication these days.'

While charities can pull on the emotional heartstrings of MPs who are aware of issues likely to appeal to their constituents, the research does seem to suggest that businesses must work harder to get their message across. ‘The techniques that lobbyists use are being transferred across all sectors, so it is the message which is becoming increasingly important, as is the need to target that message more effectively,' adds Ettinghausen. 

The Hansard Society is an independent, non-partisan educational charity that promotes effective parlia­mentary democracy. The report is being produced in conjunction with PA recruiter Ellwood & Atfield. The research follows a study last year by Communicate Research, which looked at whether the use of PA consultancies improved their clients' communication with MPs. The results showed that 66 per cent of MPs were more receptive to being contacted via a consultancy, while 53 per cent said a consultancy would be favoured if it was an APPC member.

‘MPs have a more positive view of lobbyists than some people might think. They are regarded as part of the software for running the machinery of government, improving the quality of communication with legislators and representing a client resource which is usually well spent,' says Communicate Research director Andrew Hawkins.

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