When the history of modern political lobbying comes to be written,
the story of Ian Greer’s fall from grace will remain a cautionary tale
for those who seek to bend the rules of play at Westminster.
But while Greer’s personal misfortune is no cause for celebration among
his many friends, the entire lobbying industry has in a peculiar way
benefited from all the attendant publicity. Like phobics who have been
forced to confront, and conquer their worst fears, lobbyists can now
concentrate on getting better.
’Parliamentarians are very proud of the way our political system
operates,’ says Charles Miller, managing director of the Public Policy
Unit and secretary of the Association of Professional Political
Consultants. ’And they insist, quite rightly, that matters of lobbying
are played to their rules. When lobbyists treat politicians
inappropriately, or try and treat them as an extension of their own
businesses, then inevitably, problems occur.’
There are certainly fewer MPs on consultancy letter-headings, according
to Gill Morris, managing director of lobbying firm GPC Connect and Dick
Newby, director of Matrix, says clients are being far more careful to
ensure that their relationships with MPs are above board. But has Greer
been bad for business?
In terms of sheer client numbers, says Miller, the 14-strong APPC
membership is enjoying something of an upturn at present, but he adds
that post-Nolan, many clients have already begun to use consultancies in
a rather different way.
’There are far fewer retainers in operation and consultancies are being
used instead on a project-by-project basis,’ says Miller. ’There is
clear evidence that the clients who treat lobbying in a professional
manner - such as British Aerospace, ICI, British Gas, some of the trade
unions and pressure groups for example - are also taking far more
lobbying work in-house.
’There is also, sadly, a far wider gap opening up between the firms who
treat lobbying with some degree of sophistication and the rest of the
client world, who sometimes don’t. That divide is reflected in the
make-up of the consultancy world itself, which sees far more start-ups
of the PR specialist variety than of the genuine problem-solving
Michael Cockerell’s recent TV documentary on lobbying A Word In The
Right Ear did much to debunk the notion that lobbying is solely about
hosting lavish lunches for greedy MPs. It also, according to the Times
review, made for a ’fascinating 20-minute advertisement for the lobbying
services of Sir Tim Bell.’
But according to Morris - who believes that the Greer affair merely
compounded the damage already done to lobbying by Nolan - the world as a
whole continues to misunderstand and mistrust the entire political
’I believe that we must now start to strengthen our professional status
and remind people that we are both a legitimate, and a long-established
business. It is inevitable that many people will think of us in terms of
’cash for questions’, but that doesn’t mean we should somehow accept
that reputation. We need to educate clients, Parliament and the
Dick Newby - a proponent of taking an ’holistic’ approach to public
affairs, incorporating a broader range of disciplines such as media
relations and financial PR - takes the view that the days of four-hour
lunching have genuinely given way to a new understanding by clients that
it is what you know, not who. He says: ’ The new style of lobbying
requires new skills; the prime one being that you must understand the
arguments. I believe that despite its problems, this industry is coming
of age and that from now on, we will begin to be seen more like
accountants and lawyers; professional advisers whose intellectual input
While there will always be a social side to lobbying - partly because an
awful lot of even senior business people are intimidated by politicians
and need introductions - most consultants agree that the importance of
the meeting role is greatly diminished post-Nolan and Greer, even though
some consultancies resent rather than welcome it.
Leighton Andrews, chairman of Political Context, believes that: ’With so
many clients strengthening their in-house public affairs teams, it is
clear that to some extent, our role must develop. But it is equally
clear that for many political consultancies, that change is not coming
Andrews says that while consultants could once rely on ’Hansard
clippings and hand-holding in meetings’, today’s clients demand more
senior people on their business and greater understanding of politics as
While the 1980s were characterised, he says, by the desire to draft in
ex-journalists - not just political journalists, but former spokesmen
for key Government departments such as Transport or Environment - the
late 1990s, he says, is a time for heavyweights:
’Ex-clients bring something new to consultancies; they are able to make
judgements and to prioritise and they often engender more trust than the
traditional consultancy management which can too often look like it is
spending all its time running the consultancy. I believe that ex-clients
and ex-researchers will become crucial to consultancies in the coming
Andrews says that consultancies must start to focus on two key strands
of people; senior people at the strategic end of the business, supported
by small teams of experienced political researchers. ’There’ll be a
gradual squeezing out of the middle layer.’
Dick Newby adds that ex-civil servants are another rich vein to be
tapped by consultancies. ’They have technical and analytical skills and
of course they also know Parliament extremely well,’ he says.
With a Labour victory now looking like a safe bet in the general
election, most consultancies believe that statutory registration of
lobbyists is on the cards, as well as a tightening up of MPs’ outside
interests. But how long might it take? There is a strong feeling that if
lobbyists keep their noses clean, and don’t attract too much adverse
publicity, Tony Blair will have several other more important issues to
put at the top of his agenda.
’All of us will be operating in a more exposed environment under
Labour,’ says Andrews. ’And I think that tighter controls over lobbying,
as well as MPs, will undoubtedly come.’
These could include a register of spouses’ interests, computerisation of
the journalists’ and research assistants’ database and banning chairmen
and members of Select Committees from holding interests in the
industries which their committees serve both during their time on the
Committee and for a specified time afterwards.
Newby says: ’Labour will be more puritanical generally, but there will
be far less pressure on their MPs to earn lots of money outside their
Michael Burrell, managing director of Westminster Strategy has long been
an advocate of a statutory registration scheme, but he doesn’t believe
that Blair will be too quick to usher in such a scheme: ’Labour has made
noises about lobbying, but New Labour has also found that lobbying has
been a very good route to business in the past couple of years. As long
as it is conducted professionally, I don’t see any change just yet.’
The only important change that might come soon after the election should
Labour get in, says Burrell, is the opening up of opportunities for
lobbying in a whole new arena - the Scottish Parliament that Walworth
Road is committed to establishing.
Burrell does not agree that there is a major move to handling more
’consultancy’ work in-house and says that his own firm’s business has
been on the up since the Greer controversy, (particularly since he and
others directly benefited from the IGA fallout).
Nor does he necessarily agree that the ’gin and tonic’ school of
lobbying is necessarily on the wane:
’One should never utterly rule out the usefulness of lunching,’ he
’After all, over lunch, you can get a politician for maybe an
hour-and-a-half, in a relaxed atmosphere, and without any outside
Who would want to swap that for a 30-minute meeting in a noisy
IPRA: UNCOVERING INDUSTRY’S RELATIONSHIP WITH SOCIETY
With the prospects of a Labour election victory now very much in view, a
timely piece of research by the IPRA will examine in depth the
relationship between the business community and the society it
Incoming IPRA President Roger Hayes is to canvass 50 top UK-based
international companies on how they perceive issues management and
whether they support the use of targeted communications on issues before
they reach the crisis management stage.
The overall context of the research will focus on the sometimes shady
public image of the business world and how it can be improved.
Judy Larkin of Regester Larkin, who is working on the research, says: ’A
straw poll suggests that barely five per cent of firms have managed
techniques for the management of issues that have a clear effect on
their corporations. We want to find out if this limited commitment to
issues management is widespread throughout the business world.’
The survey, whose results are due by the middle of this year, will focus
on 50 Fortune 500 Companies, roughly split between the US, Europe and
the Asia Pacific region. Research will be conducted at chief executive
or board management level.
At the heart of the research, says Larkin, will be the question of how
businesses see their relationship to society as a whole and any steps
being taken to forge closer links with the community.
Businesses to be targeted include manufacturers as well as professional
’The outline questionnaire, which is currently being looked at by
academics in the UK and US, will find out how they manage communications
functions both internally and externally - attitudes to these two things
often being markedly different - and ask them to assess which are the
most pressing and important issues likely to affect their company in the
coming five or ten years,’ she adds.
’We will also look at how they try to influence those issues in a
positive way and the methods that each use.’
Larkin believes that public health will be a major issue for many
companies, particularly in the light of the BSE and E-coli outbreaks, as
well as general environmental matters, the regulatory framework and the
opening up of companies such as British Gas to competition.
The IPRA hopes that the results of its research will be published in
association with an academic organisation and will be used by
practitioners, rather than adding yet another dust-gatherer to
TARGETING: MOVING AWAY FROM THE MIDDLE CLASSES
Single issue pressure groups are now experts at getting support from all
sections of the local and national media - be the issue one of
(allegedly libellous) ’dirt’ on giant hamburger corporations,
potentially murderous road problems or parental fears over the growth of
Ecstasy use at rave clubs.
But with still-rare exceptions, the media that is targeted by ’broader
brush’ public affairs practitioners is predominantly middle-class. When
it comes to influencing street-level opinion - the ’Joe and Joanna
Public’ so beloved of market researchers - the usual tricks of the trade
may not apply, says Edward Bickham, managing director of corporate
policy and public affairs at Hill and Knowlton.
’It’s possibly far easier for lobbyists to deal with the sort of
audience that listens to Today and reads the Financial Times, because
they are the same sort of people that lobbyists are and tend to feel
comfortable with,’ he says.
’But when it comes to targeting what you might call non-opinion formers
- people whose beliefs are possibly key to your campaign, but who don’t
tend to listen to much news or factual programming as a rule - then you
need to be far more inventive in your approach.’
According to Leighton Andrews, former corporate affairs head at the BBC,
now chairman of Political Context ’there is a tendency in lobbying to
assume that everyone reads the quality press and catches Today, but the
audience research figures for the UK don’t bear this out.
’The BBC’s own research shows that a high proportion of 16 to 34 year
olds get their news from Radio 1, from BBC local radio or from
independent local radio,’ he says. ’Central Office may get very worried
about what’s being broadcast on Today, but an awful lot of other people,
especially the young, don’t share that worry.’
He adds: ’It is clear that when you are targeting Radio 1 listeners you
have simply got to find new and relevant ways to present your story and
get your message across.’ But some take the view that the small minority
of people who don’t consume any media at all are unlikely to pose much
of a challenge to lobbyists.
’There may be people who don’t watch, listen to or read anything at all,
but they would be unlikely to be the sort of people who could be
motivated by a lobbying campaign in the first place,’ says Bickham.
CASE STUDY: PRINCE CHARLES HIGHLIGHTS HOMEWORK ISSUE
A few years ago, the notion of Study Support - out-of-hours learning for
young people from disadvantaged areas - was about as politically
explosive as the battle for more soap in public conveniences.
Yet five years after the Prince’s Trust launched its own scheme to
provide money and facilities for out-of-school study, the issue has been
catapulted to the top of the political agenda and is now supported by
all the major parties. Not to mention firms such as BT, which has made a
pounds 180,000 contribution to the cause.
In recent weeks, Prince Charles has taken the conference platform in
Scotland, to highlight the issue of homework and how it can definitively
help a child to succeed at school, while Labour has seized the study
support baton with figures on how many hours of homework each British
schoolchild should be set.
The Trust, which uses Matrix as an adviser, began with the task of not
only raising awareness - among parents, educationalists, local
authorities and churches etc - of an issue that few had considered
before, but also bringing on-board all the disparate parties who are in
some way connected with education.
’We needed of course to involve the schools and all the other relevant
educational establishments,’ says Jo Naughton, communications manager at
the Trust, ’but we also needed the interest, and hopefully commitment of
the business community, to whom we were looking for funds.’
’At the same time, we also needed to lobby Government, whose educational
policies can have a huge impact on what we do, via a department here
which has responsibility for influencing cross-party policy.’
The Scottish conference at which the Prince made a plea for better
understanding of study support had been booked six months in advance,
but Labour announced its own homework plans the day before. ’We put out
press releases that same day and of course after the conference was
over, to get the maximum coverage possible from the media,’ says
Naughton. ’ It was clear to all of us that our work behind-the-scenes
had had a marked impact on Labour’s pre-election agenda.’
The Prince’s view that out-of-hours study can be as important as what
goes on at school, if not more so, found favour in the general press,
which was targeted alongside specialist educational media.
Soon after, Study Support was given the tacit approval of both the
Government and the Liberal Democrats. By the year 2000, the Trust aims
to develop a national network of 1,000 Study Support centres.