Advocacy, the trade of the traditional lobbyist, became distinctly
unfashionable a couple of years ago. The industry backlash to media
scrutiny of misdemeanours might have led to the supposition that no
longer do lobbyists and public affairs practitioners practice
traditional advocacy - the physical representation of a client's
interests to a source of influence - be it an MP, civil servant or other
decision-maker. In fact, the industry has been at pains to point out
that the perception of PA consultants as corporate spivs having quiet
words in the ears of friendly MPs or ministers is increasingly
unjustified. But is advocacy really on the way out? PRWeek decided to
ask those four groups of people directly affected by lobbying - MPs,
civil servants, clients and journalists - whether in their experience
the traditional lobbyist is a dying breed.
There is no doubt that in the wake of the anti-sleaze Nolan committee's
attempts to instill a sense of openness in a previously murky area, the
sector has battled to establish that this sort of lobbying has been
replaced by a wider, integrated comms effort to pressurise policy-makers
through diverse channels.
'We've seen quite a dramatic change in how our work is perceived,'
reports Alan Butler, Burson-Marsteller head of public affairs. He says
that when he worked for another consultancy in 1995 they 'proudly
boasted' that they didn't speak to journalists and only did government
relations. Today, there is a recognition that a range of stakeholders
influence the process. And they, in turn, need to be influenced. 'I
would say that there are a range of pressure points that you need to
think about,' he says.
Those pressure points vary according to the issue but tend to include
the media, academics, local communities NGOs and other stakeholders or
interest groups that might influence decision-makers. Many public
affairs practitioners assert that the influence of the media, in
particular, has grown under New Labour, partly as a result of the
Government's massive parliamentary majority. There is less need to pay
attention to the opposition and more time devoted to other
opinion-formers. 'If you seek to influence this Government then by all
means lobby directly but they are also exceptionally sensitive to media
comment,' argues Graham Macmillan, Fishburn Hedges head of public
affairs. 'Power is more diffuse and lobbying has to recognise that
Butler agrees, suggesting that the 'Americanisation' of the public
affairs industry has had its part to play. He says that as more of the
UK public affairs industry has come under US control, so the industry's
ethos has changed: 'Public affairs in the US looks more like a mix of
corporate affairs and lobbying and the UK has begun to reflect that
The trick lies in creating an environment under which elected
representatives are naturally led towards the view that fits most
closely with your organisation's goals.
'You've got to make it as easy as possible for the ultimate set of
decision-makers to make their decision in your favour,' says Jon McLeod,
Weber Shandwick PA senior director.
It is not so much that advocacy is dead, but more that it has expanded
from one-on-one to a more pluralist approach. In-house people at client
companies appear to be using them more for strategic input as they
increasingly demonstrate an ability to contact decision makers
Despite change, some take care to point out that government and the
civil service in particular are still old-fashioned and still value
traditional ways of being handled. Handwritten letters and bound
presentations that look as if they emerged from the 1950s still carry
weight. Charles Miller, a Citigate Public Affairs consultant, notes that
the 'call-back' factor is still important for consultants. Can you get
decision-makers to return your calls and enter a discussion regarding
He believes that public affairs has become much more of a
'coalition-building' process as different interests are woven together
to form a united front: 'People will tell you that there have been
enormous changes but the basic principles of working with government
Do MPs think that advocacy is dead? Most of those contacted by PRWeek
felt unable to comment on trends in the role of PA advisers, but they
have firm views. The most frequently expressed advice is not to bombard
MPs with letters, e-mails, leaflets and other literature in the hope
that something might reach its target.
Despite these complaints, most MPs and their assistants felt advocacy
was a valuable part of the democratic process, allowing ideas and
interests to bubble up from local communities and organised interest
'The lobbying of parliamentarians is quite extensive,' says Ben Chapman,
Labour MP for Wirral South on Merseyside. 'I have no evidence of any
drift to or from political lobbyists, but they still have a critical
role to play because of their understanding of the processes and the way
Chapman says that it doesn't usually matter for him whether
organisations make their approach directly or hire consultants to be
their public face 'Sometimes it will be important for them to put the
case directly. There is nothing to stop them developing or recruiting
the necessary talent although smaller organisations may find they need
it for a limited timeframe.'
Perhaps unusually for a former Burson-Marsteller PR consultant, Chris
Grayling prefers approaches from a company or organisation, rather than
from a lobbying firm. The new Conservative MP for Epsom & Ewell notes
that appeals or pressure directly from constituents are going to have
the greatest effect on an MP - even if written on behalf of a company or
Next in the queue will be an approach related to a policy area of
'No MP can do everything and they need to be selective about who they
target.' He says that, as a member of the transport select committee, he
has brought himself up-to-date on related issues and is receptive to
approaches from companies or pressure groups in the field.
That is backed up by Caroline Spelman, Conservative MP for the Meriden
constituency, between Birmingham and Coventry. She says she has seen
many lobbyists from special health interest groups in her role as a
'I found their visits informative and helpful just before adjournment
debates or when preparing amendments to legislation.' Similarly, Chapman
acknowledges that all parliamentary groups can be an important part of
the consultative process, by definition, showing an interest in and
specialist understanding of the subject under consideration.
What then should be avoided when trying to get an MP on side? 'Attempts
at material reward would turn MPs off,' warns Chapman. 'Excess pressure,
excess material and excess hospitality would tend to have the same
effect A measured approach would be welcomed.'
So is advocacy dead for MPs? No. But direct dialogue with businesses and
organisations is just as important.
Today's public affairs practitioners don't just have to think about
integrating their campaigns with the rest of their communications
It has to be delivered to a wider group of decision-makers, too.
Concentrating efforts solely on Westminster is unlikely to satisfy the
needs of most companies. Indeed, local authorities, national assemblies,
the European Union and other supranational bodies all have their part to
Despite growing evidence of in-house departments' ability to speak for
themselves to a variety of stakeholders, civil servants contacted by
PRWeek were quite confident advocacy still existed.
David Wilson, a senior consultant at Lexington Communciations and former
Lewisham Borough Council deputy mayor pointed to the growing awareness
of local authorities in shaping wider opinion, and claimed that the one
key finding of his analysis of the public affairs attitude of in-house
and consultancy personnel was that, 'many companies still ignore local
They do so at their peril. Wilson argues that local residents are
increasingly prepared to form action groups that can have a real effect
on the plans of large companies on a local level.
'People have become very good at organising themselves around an issue
and campaigning against it. We've seen a definite trend towards such
small-scale action groups in recent times and only a few companies have
woken up to the need to talk to them directly,' he adds.
According to one local government officer at another London borough, in
his 15 years of working there he had seen no change in the role of
lobbyists - advocacy as far as he is concerned is alive and well. But he
can see change in the way that local groups marshal themselves to react
to different issues.
Another civil servant from a government body would not elaborate, but
says, 'I have seen no real change in the process.'
The civil servants commented that lobbyists could help to create
dialogue between local businesses and organisations and local MPs. And
that they often acted as facilitators to bring those with business
interests, both public affairs consultants and in-house people, together
with influencers and decision-makers. So, as far as civil servants are
concerned, advocacy is alive and well.
A key pressure on public affairs consultancies in recent years has been
the changing capabilities of the clients themselves. With sophisticated
in-house teams, many larger companies and organisations have started
looking for a different kind of service from their consultants and
changing the way in which they structure their approach. There is far
less reliance on PA consultants to provide advocacy on the behalf of
clients, and more of an emphasis on the provision of strategic
'The traditional barriers between public affairs and other
communications disciplines are breaking down,' says Ian Wright, Diageo
group communications director and IPR president. 'The whole business is
one in which PR people are having to provide advocacy, but they are
using a range of tools.'
Aware of those pressures, the Association of British Insurers recently
integrated its PA with its media relations. Alan Leaman, head of media
and public affairs says: 'It's partly to do with the observation that
this government is more aware of the media, but it's also a secular,
long-term trend. The media plays a bigger role in all of our lives. The
population is less deferential and more sceptical. If you've got a case
to argue then you've got to argue it through the media, too.'
Others assert they have always taken an integrated approach. Neil
Sherlock, KPMG partner of public affairs, believes such trends mean
larger organisations are looking for advice, strategic planning and
background from their lobbying consultants rather than advocacy:
'They're not talking to people on your behalf but advising you on the
impact of legislation or government proposals.'
PricewaterhouseCoopers head of public affairs Chris Lowe, notes that
despite the pressure for change some things stay the same: 'The
discipline is still about getting the right message to the right person
at the right time. The volume of correspondence is now far higher so
you've got to try that bit harder to get your message across.' Lowe
adds: 'I've been doing public affairs for 12 years and have never used a
PA consultancy to advocate on behalf of a company.' As far as client
companies are concerned, those that PRWeek spoke to were emphatic that
as more of them practise public affairs and integrate it with other
communications disciplines, 'traditional' advocacy is dying, if not
Integrated public affairs campaigns may be the order of the day but it
could be more the result of a global trend than any direct reaction to
the current UK government. Certainly, ministers are more paranoid about
media coverage than any previous administration - witness the Jo Moore
scandal in recent weeks. But there is also a wider recognition of the
need for companies and organisations to manage their reputations.
The Sunday Times political editor -in-waiting David Cracknell believes
the Government's massive majority has had an impact on the process:
'It's definitely changed and the media has become much more important.'
Whereas in the past a backbench MP could ruffle a lot of feathers by
making a few noises, nowadays PA specialists recognise they may gain
more of an effect through the media.
Cracknell suggests lobbyists have more of a part to play in the PR
process and regularly push to get stories on the front page, knowing
that ministers will take note.
Not surprisingly, few journalists believe the power of the media has
declined. However, The Sunday Telegraph political editor Joe Murphy does
note that some ministers seem to favour a clear, well-defined briefing
from a good lobbyist than having an issue raised through the press:
'This government loves lobbyists, it likes campaigns boiled down to
simple positions and well-briefed argument. It's a government of
lawyers.' He believes that sometimes that can mean that journalists are
shut out of a process in which they would have previously been included
- with handshakes, rather than off-the-record press briefings, having
the desired affect on government. 'Some of the big firms are not using
those guys (lobbyists) to generate press stories so much as using them
to maintain access.'
That being the case advocacy is anything but dead and buried. Still,
there are plenty of journalists willing to acknowledge the growing use
of the media by PA practitioners. Rebecca Smithers, The Guardian
education correspondent, believes companies, organisations and their
consultants have become adept at spinning their story away from
specialist journalists towards the lobby correspondent. The idea is that
the generalist political journalists may be less knowledgeable on the
subject in question and so more likely to cover it. She should know -
she was formerly one of the parliamentary gang herself.
Such a targeted approach doesn't mean the vast majority of PR and PA
practitioners have become any more adept at sending their releases to
the correct journalists. It's an age-old complaint, echoed by MPs, but
e-mail has made the problem more acute. Murphy, Cracknell and Smithers
all raise the issue without any prompting.
The consensus is that the current government loves lobbyists and that
advocacy is by no means dead, but as it pays more heed to the media than
before that the media are being increasingly targeted by PA specialists.