FOCUS: SCOTLAND - SLOW OFF THE MARK/Scottish business is taking a wait and see approach to the new parliament

The biggest political change in Scotland for 300 years takes place in 11 weeks. Yet ask Scottish organisations what they are doing to prepare for the devolution of power to the Scottish parliament, and the standard response is: ’waiting to see what happens’.

The biggest political change in Scotland for 300 years takes place

in 11 weeks. Yet ask Scottish organisations what they are doing to

prepare for the devolution of power to the Scottish parliament, and the

standard response is: ’waiting to see what happens’.



An approach that is to their detriment, according to Michael Russell,

chief executive of the SNP and candidate for MSP in the May

elections.



He says: ’Organisations should have been talking a year ago in terms of

policy formulation.’



As a candidate, Russell says he is already being targeted with

information by the better prepared. He believes organisations which want

a stake in the new order should, at the very least, be going through

each individual who they think will be involved in the parliament. They

should scrutinise party policies so that they will know before voting

starts what is likely to happen in their particular sector.



But despite such criticism, Sheila Kennedy of Text 100 Scotland warns of

the pitfalls of being too involved with the three main parties. ’It is

only through partnerships between the public and private sector that the

new parliament can explore the possibilities of truly modern,

technologically enabled government,’ she says.



Despite being well positioned to supply a public affairs service in

Scotland Cameron Grant, deputy managing director of the Communications

Group says that so far the agency has received only a ’watching brief’

from clients.



The Scottish Landowners’ Federation is another organisation which is

stepping up its communications activity. However, even with land reform

at the top of the agenda, activity so far amounts to little more than

building databases of MSP candidates.



One problem which may be leading to a lack of activity is that

businesses simply do not know enough about the parliament. A survey

carried out by Market Research Scotland revealed that two-thirds of

businesses are ’in the dark’ about the new political arena.



Shandwick commissioned the survey and although it does not currently

have a dedicated public affairs unit in Scotland, has teamed up with

leading law firm McGrigor Donald and Market Research Scotland, to offer

organisations a Scottish parliament healthcheck. The idea is that the

service will give organisations the information they need to operate in

the new political environment.



However, perhaps the laid-back approach of Scottish organisations is

more in keeping with the whole tone of the new parliament. With everyone

involved adamant that this will be completely different from

Westminster, and the emphasis on absolute transparency, there is

discussion that the term ’lobbying’ may no longer be appropriate. As

Russell says: ’We are happy to be informed, we are not happy to be

lobbied.’



There will not be a great need for lobbyists for two reasons. While

those working in public affairs debate the merits of the APPC’s and

Association of Scottish Public Affair’s respective codes of conduct, the

reality is that Scotland is a small country, and there is the feeling

that everyone knows everybody already. And as it is a completely new

system, can anybody claim to know how it works better than anyone

else?



Jane Saren, managing director of GPC Scotland, says: ’Access isn’t the

issue - any business could probably get a meeting with the Scottish

Office.



Instead, we will be needed to follow what’s happening with a degree of

depth and analysis which people in business don’t have time to do.

Because it’s a new political system, the product we’re offering is

fluid, and there’s scope for new approaches.’



Angela Casey of sister-company Countrywide Porter Novelli warns that

there simply won’t be the budgets for huge public affairs campaigns

which lobbying companies are used to seeing in Brussels and Westminster.

’Companies will want to know what’s going on - there will be monitoring,

advice on communications and report writing, but these will be additions

to existing programmes,’ says Casey.



Similarly, Shandwick’s chief executive of UK Regions, John Gerrie thinks

that initially it will be hiring public affairs staff in Scotland only

to monitor the goings on at parliament and make this information

available to all Shandwick Public Affairs’ clients.



But, some organisations are not content to sit back and watch. An

excellent example is BT Scotland, which has made an upfront commitment

to working alongside the parliament.



While BT has always had a significant presence in Scotland, in the last

18 months there has been major investment in the country. Press and

broadcast manager Barbara Clark says: ’BT Scotland is looking not just

at the business opportunities which will emerge, but for ways to work

with the new Parliament.’ She gives the example of its current work with

prospective MSPs to see how communications at Holyrood can be

improved.



As communication has already been highlighted as a vitally important

aspect of the parliament - for example, it has been widely publicised

that all MSPs will have an e-mail address through which the public can

contact them - BT Scotland’s proactive stance seems a very wise one, and

one wonders that more companies aren’t following in its footsteps.



It seems a lot of interest is coming from south of the border, with

London-based organisations eager to get a foot in the door, as it were,

by hiring a Scottish PR consultancy. Certainly Edinburgh-based Carnegie

PR reports that it has been asked to pitch for business where clients

want Scottish expertise. One client which it won recently was KLM UK,

for which it has already organised sponsorship of the Scotsman’s

parliamentary web site.



Surprisingly, according to Judith Dalton, account executive at Carnegie

PR, in a competitive pitch for the KLM account, the client reported that

Carnegie was the only agency to even mention the parliament - the

deciding factor in its appointment.



However, with professionals such as Casey predicting that ’Lots of

offices will open here, and probably close again in a short period of

time,’ and the high awareness of prospective MSPs of the way

organisations are approaching parliament, a mere foot in the door now

may be too little, too late to get ahead in the new Scotland.



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