LIFE AFTER NOLAN: The Nolan report brought home to lobbyists the need
to have access to media relations skills
FROM MP TO MD: Why ex-Government specialists who turn adviser need to
watch where they’re treading
LABOUR IMPLICATIONS: Business leaderstake a serious look at what life
under Labour would mean to them
Post-Nolan lobbyists are having to convince clients not only of their
integrity, but of their ability to navigate both the corridors of power
and those of the media world. Report by Virginia Matthews
Mention the ‘N’ word to any professional lobbyist and you are apt to get
a mini lecture on how ‘constructive’ Nolan has been for the industry -
how it has focused attention on the role of lobbying in the democratic
process, and how important it is that MPs and lobbyists now know exactly
where they stand.
But despite the bravado with which many of the political consultancies
are treating the whole sorry episode - and even the most bullish of them
say that the aftermath of Nolan is far from over - there are others who
share the view of Nick de Luca, senior associate at APCO UK, that what
lobbying needs right now is some top-notch PR of its own.
‘It is certainly the case that 10 years ago, lobbying was all about
lavish lunching and calling in favours from people who were at Eton with
you,’ says American-born de Luca, ‘but nowadays, when your favourite
backbench MPs are just as likely to have been lobbied by the Consumers’
Association as by some massive company, the old boy network isn’t quite
‘What we need to do post-Nolan is to get the message across that far
from being innately evil and corrupt, we lobbyists are there to give
professional advice to anyone who needs to influence the policy
decisions made by Government. While we are usually associated with big
business, as an industry we also do extensive work for trade unions,
pressure groups and charities.’
While lobbyists now have a more outward looking stance collectively,
with bodies such as the recently-formed Association of Professional PR
Consultants (APPC), there appears to be little consensus on how the
industry should be defined.
Although APPC secretary Charles Miller, for example, is keen to
dissociate political lobbying from what he calls the ‘smells and bells’
techniques of mainstream public relations, Lord McNally, director of
public affairs at Shandwick, believes that the PR industry needs
‘further splintering and fragmentation’ like John Major needs another
disastrous by-election result.
But diverting though the internal wranglings of the lobbying industry no
doubt are, Michael Burrell, managing director of Westminster Strategy
and a founder member of the APPC, is keen to stress that there are
crucial issues impacting on public affairs from outside the industry
too: ‘We’ve all spent a lot of time getting to know Westminster, but it
is also time that we got to know Whitehall a little better too,’ he
‘While it might look as though politicians make all the decisions that
affect our clients’ businesses, it is the civil servants, as much as
the politicians, who have enormous influence on our clients.’
If today’s lobbyist needs to appreciate the subtleties of Yes Minister
just as much as Prime Minister’s Question Time, then he or she must
also, says Burrell, appreciate the growing importance of the select
committee: ‘These committees really are giving backbench MPs a whole new
way of influencing the agenda of Government,’ he says, ‘and are becoming
an important new target for all of us.’
In particular, Burrell mentions the Treasury Select Committee, for its
wide-ranging review of financial policy and the Social Security Select
Committee, chaired by Labour MP Frank Field, which, he says, has
‘influenced thinking on social policy, pensions and the enormous
implications of our ageing population’.
Paul Twyman chairman of Political Strategy believes that clients are
squandering money on Westminster that would be better spent on
Whitehall. ‘Clients are quite unsophisticated and even big companies
waste money on activities geared at MPs when, for about a tenth of the
price, you can achieve these aims by focusing on one or two civil
servants and one minister,’ says Twyman.
‘Select committees are almost secret weapons. Most people haven’t
tumbled how useful they are. But you have to go in at the right level,
there is too much of a tendency to bother ministers and write to the
permanent secretary. The secret is to have close links with the desk
clerk because these are the people who do the briefings, suggest some of
the questions that MPs should ask and help draft the final reports,’
Edward Bickham, the managing director of corporate policy and public
affairs at Hill and Knowlton, goes even further: ‘There is still an
assumption in this industry that public policy is made purely by MPs and
officials, but we take the view that it is also essential to get a
message across to policy writers on newspapers and to members of
leading academic think-tanks.’
Bickham believes that Hill and Knowlton is one of the few consultancies
to be tackling what Bickham calls the ‘victim syndrome,’ endemic to
political communications specialists. ‘When it comes to mainstream
product development, most companies are proactive, planning their future
launches by looking at what consumers are doing and so forth. Yet in
public policy, they are too willing to sit back and let things happen to
them,’ he says. ‘We believe that it is vital that lobbyists actually
influence policy themselves, particularly in the area of regulation.’
As Charles Miller points out, today’s lobbyist is bombarded with
regulations, be they home-grown or shipped over from Brussels, and
whether those regulations are concerned with utilities,
telecommunications or, increasingly, the financial services world, few
lobbyists can afford to ignore their complexities.
If Europe remains the focus for most lobbyists, APCO -which has offices
in Washington, Brussels and Moscow as well as London and calls itself
‘the only international public affairs network’ - believes that
lobbying needs to take an increasingly global view of its work.
‘While British MPs were understandably upset when McDonald’s stopped
using British beef for example, it was simply a case of a multinational
company protecting a global brand,’ says Nick de Luca. ‘Most clients
need to look at the key issues of the day on an international basis.’
Although there is still fierce debate as to whether the lobbying
industry should be seen as part and parcel of PR, there can be little
doubt that to be an effective lobbyist, one needs to understand general
media issues too.
‘I don’t see how political campaigning can be dissociated from
mainstream publicity work,’ says Leigh Mendelsohn, chairman of the PRCA
public affairs committee, ‘particularly not when so many apparently
simple consumer issues can end up becoming quasi-political.’
After all, she says, if the Monopolies and Mergers Commission
investigates pricing in, say, the contact lense sector, then a
previously mundane industry can overnight acquire the baggage associated
with being a ‘controversial issue’.
‘Everyone in PR,’ adds Mendelsohn, ‘should be aware of political events
and their likely impact on mainstream clients.’
While Mendelsohn would maintain that general PR consultancies can, and
should, take on lobbying specialists to handle specific public affairs
briefs, what about the other way around?
The Waterfront Partnership, which has long had expertise in the
transport sector --its earliest work was with the port authorities and
it now numbers railways among its clients - has recently hired Martin
Helm, ex-head of information at the Department of Transport,
specifically to strengthen its media side.
Deputy managing director Ian Dale says: ‘Increasingly, clients want
specialists. They simply haven’t got the time to spend six months with
you teaching you their business. We felt that for both existing and
future clients, a media specialist was vital.’
Helm, whose title is director of public relations, says of his new role:
‘Every organisation needs a profile; my job will be to build up this
consultancy’s profile alongside that of its clients.’
While the question of whether or not lobbying is simply PR with a
political hat will continue to rage inside consultancies, few people
would disagree that lobbyists need media skills just as much as the
corporate or product PR people need an understanding of politics.
As Burrell puts it: ‘The member of Parliament who says he or she isn’t
influenced by what they read in the newspaper or watch on the television
isn’t living in the real world. And, after all, what you soon learn as a
lobbyist is that MPs are really no different from the rest of us.’
Advocacy rules: Juggling the questions
Last November, the House of Commons significantly changed the rules on
advocacy when it amended procedures on Parliamentary privileges.
While paid advocacy is now strictly banned - ‘ no Member of the House
shall, in consideration of any remuneration...advocate or initiate any
cause or matter on behalf of any outside body or individual’ - paid
Parliamentary consultancy work remains admissible, so long as it is
declared in debate and on the Register of Members’ Interests published
on May 7, which must be made available to the public.
Any MP who takes on such work has to provide full written details,
including the fees he or she expects to be paid. Any direct financial
interest in a lobbying company must be declared fully.
Recommendations from the select committee on Standards in Public Life
stating that any member with a paid interest should not initiate or
participate in a delegation ‘where the problem affects only the body
from which he has a paid interest’ were resolved on by the House.
Within the terms of Nolan, a lobbying company can include not just a
specialist public affairs consultancy but any PR firm which offers
political lobbying, or any law and accountancy firm or regulatory
consultancy which includes lobbying among its list of services.
Although the new rules appear clear enough, the APPC’s Charles Miller
and others have little doubt that a determined MP could be able toignore
them. Several MPs, including David Mellor, the former Heritage
Secretary, have already defied the first post-Nolan register of members’
interests, claiming that their earnings have nothing to do with their
Potential ways of bending the rules inside the House include asking a
colleague to ask those questions that your paymaster wants answers to -
strictly banned but hard to police - or asking them yourself on behalf
of a constituent. It would also be difficult to challenge any member who
claimed to be ‘taking a genuine interest in’ a topic he or she was
actually being paid to investigate.
Any money received can be listed as ‘non-Parliamentary work’, can be
divided up into small sums of under pounds 1,000 to hide its true worth
or conveniently banked overseas.
But as Miller points out: ‘I have no evidence of any MP doing any of
Media influences: Tuning into MPs’ wave lengths
Seventy three per cent of MPs find The House Magazine compulsive
reading, but for general media, their reading and viewing habits are
based largely on party lines, finds a recent survey from Business
Planning & Research International (BPRI).
Over 80 per cent of Tory MPs read the Daily Telegraph, the Times and the
London Evening Standard three or more times a week, while as many as 90
per cent of Labour MPs read the left-leaning Guardian. More than six in
10 Labour members told pollsters that they read the Independent and the
On a Sunday, 78 per cent of Tory MP’s regularly read the Sunday Times,
with 61 per cent also reading the Sunday Telegraph. Over 80 per cent of
Labour MP’s read the Observer, 50 per cent read the Sunday Times. Both
parties put the Mail on Sunday at the top of the Sunday tabloids list.
As far as TV goes, ITN’s News at Ten came top of the list of news
programmes watched by Tory MPs (67 per cent), followed by the BBC’s
Newsnight (49 per cent) and the Nine O’Clock News (37 per cent).
Among Labour MPs, Newsnight proved the most popular (64 per cent),
followed by the Six O’Clock News (52 per cent) and the Nine O’Clock News
(38 per cent). Twelve per cent of Tory members and seven per cent of
Labour also mentioned Sky News.
Radio 4’s claim to set the political agenda of the day with its top-
rated Today show is borne out in the BPRI survey, which finds that 73
per cent of Conservative and 64 per cent of Labour MPs tune in when the
House is sitting.
The survey was conducted among 100 MPs on the Political Opinion Panel
maintained by BPRI.
According to a second report by BPRI, the majority of Members continue
to support the notion that surveys can be an important lobbying tool.
Eighty-five per cent of MPs believe that the canvassing of their views
and opinions can be a valuable weapon in an organisation’s public
affairs programme, while 80 per cent said that research questionnaires
often made them think about an issue they had previously not considered.
In deciding whether or not to participate in a research programme, MPs
look at the relevance of the subject matter and the length of time it is
likely to take, as well as any inducements.
Case study: On-line lobbying
When the Fair Cigarette Tax Campaign (FCT), funded by the Tobacco
Manufacturers Association, hit on last year’s Budget as the springboard
for a major anti-tax publicity campaign, its lobbyists APCO UK were
keen to disseminate the message using the most up-to-date technology.
To complement the mainstream press activity, APCO devised one of the
country’s first full-scale Internet lobbying campaigns, inviting
interested Net users to directly petition Chancellor Kenneth Clarke via
Although Westminster as a whole is not yet up to speed on the Internet,
individual backbenchers and Ministers are being recruited daily. And
while the World Wide Web is far from being an everyday medium for
political PR consultants, APCO’s Simon Milton believes that the computer
screen is likely to become a key tool for lobbyists in the coming
century: ‘With the FCT Campaign, we invited people to access information
via a rolling display which showed exactly how much money people spend
on cigarettes and how much of that is tax. When we invited people to
register their own details and request a further questionnaire, the
number of hits went up by 60 per cent.’
While no-one knows for sure how many Britons are now regularly surfing
the Net, APCO’s own research suggests that as many as 1,300 new
households are being recruited each week; the vast majority of them
And, as far as slumbering Westminster is concerned, the next election
will see a dramatic increase in demand for e-mail numbers and web sites,
‘The next election is likely to bring in lots of younger MPs who are
arguably far more likely to be interested in modern technology than many
of the current incumbents. Lobbyists too should be getting up to speed.’
While for many of us there remains a fog of mystery surrounding the web,
Milton believes that most British clients are well-versed in the new
technology. At a recent conference he addressed on the issue of the
Internet, he says that ‘almost all the clients present had either seen
the Internet used or had it demonstrated to them’.
While Milton accepts that ignorance, more than hostility, is preventing
many of us from exploring the Internet for ourselves, he warns any
lurking Luddites: ‘Traditional paper-based forms of information-
gathering will eventually be superseded by on-line information; the Net
is a very fast-growing infant.’
Specialist advisers: Jumping over the fence
‘I don’t mind using my specialist knowledge to help colleagues plan
their strategies, but the thought of directly lobbying people who until
recently I was sitting next to at Government policy meetings would make
me feel highly uncomfortable.’
So says one of the new crop of ex-Governmental special advisers who from
1 April are bound by a new set of rules governing what they may, and may
not, work on when they leave those posts for one of the political
While it has long been understood that there should be a minimum three-
month cooling-off period between, say, being employed as a special
adviser to the Department of Education and Employment and using your DEE
contacts to act as a private sector lobbyist, the new rules go further.
Anyone wishing to make the transition from Whitehall to Whitehall
lobbyist must now seek approval from the Cabinet Office’s Business
Appointments Committee, who may ask an MP not to work on a previous
patch for a period of up to two years.
While there are perhaps few special advisers whose contacts and
information are sensitive enough to merit a two year cooling-off period
- and anyway, all are by definition bound by the Official Secrets Act,
which is in force for life - most take the view that it would be at the
very least highly irregular to leap from being gamekeeper to poacher on
a given topic for at least three months.
One says: ‘ If ex-special advisers are taken on solely because they are
seen to have important contacts and detailed knowledge of Government
policy, then consultancies will lose out because of these new rules and
will possibly stop employing people like me.’
‘If, on the other hand, we are taken on because of our wide-ranging
political experience and knowledge of how the system operates, then I
can’t see these new rules making much difference.’
While the penalties for infringement of the new rules remain unclear,
most special advisers appear to support their aims.
John Bercow, ex-special advisor to Virginia Bottomley at the Heritage
Department, joined Westminster Strategy as a senior consultant in
February. He speaks for most when he says: ‘ These new rules go some way
towards giving us an ethical framework within which to work.’
Labour lobbying: Doing business with the other side
‘Labour has never been more business-friendly and it would be wrong for
British firms to dread their winning the next election.’
So says Phil Cole, senior Labour consultant at Burson-Marsteller’s
government and public affairs division, who will address a London IBC
conference in June on the ‘Real implications of Labour for business,
industry and the City’.
With most firms, says B-M, now convinced that Labour has its best chance
in 20 years of winning the next election, Cole’s message - in a
presentation on ‘How to lobby Labour’ - is that companies should
already be getting to know the Blair team and their policies.
‘A number of businesses have already made contact with the shadow front
bench, particularly utilities, oil companies and others in highly
regulated markets, but some others remain completely unfamiliar with
Labour’s culture. While it would be wrong to go into talks with Labour
armed with a shopping list as such, it is important that more companies
get to know the beast, as it were,’ says Cole.
While there are still many uncertainties about how a Labour
administration will act, Cole believes that some strategies are already
set in concrete, among them the minimum wage, a windfall tax on
utilities and the much-derided Social Chapter.
What remains to be seen, says Cole, is whether or not the trade unions
regain the power they have lost in the post-Thatcher years, and whether
other lobby groups - environmentalists, for example - will now overtake
the unions in terms of their influence on a Labour Government.
‘We wouldn’t recommend that our clients invest in set-piece events or
lavish dinners at party conferences,’ says Cole. ‘Nor would we say that
giving money to Labour funds is always the best tactic, although some
firms are doing just that, either by switching money away from Tory
Party funds or by giving to both.
‘What all of us want to avoid is an investment pause if and when Labour
gets in, while companies wait to see what policies emerge. Although it
isn’t possible to get all the answers about Labour policy before the
election, a face-to-face talk could remove much of the uncertainty and
smooth the early days of a Labour administration.’
He adds: ‘The business community is naturally cautious about change, but
it is important to remember that Labour is just as keen to open up a
dialogue with businesses as they are to understand Labour’s thinking.’