High ethical standards are of paramount importance in public affairs work and have rightly been the subject of close public and political scrutiny.
In September, the CIPR held a roundtable debate on ethical lobbying practice. The discussion addressed how the ethical principles set out in the CIPR Code of Conduct affect the everyday lives of public affairs professionals.
The discussion focused not on what works or doesn’t work, but on what is the right thing to do. Making representation to holders of public office in order to influence legislation or policy is necessary and legitimate, so how can following the CIPR Code of Conduct ensure it is conducted in accordance with the highest professional standards?
Transparency is fundamental. When lobbying, professionals must explicitly disclose their client relationships and the interests being represented. A consultant should not pretend to be a member of their client’s staff, nor should they arrange a meeting without disclosing that they have a public affairs agenda. To do otherwise is foolish. An MP or civil servant who finds that a call or meeting has an undeclared lobbying agenda will act to protect their position and this will jeopardise your relationship and damage your reputation and your client’s case.
It is completely unacceptable for a practitioner to explicitly or covertly offer bribes or other inducements of any kind. Public affairs professionals should respect the standards expected of elected representatives and public officials and act in accordance with the CIPR Code of Conduct, the provisions of the Bribery Act and the Nolan Committee’s ‘Seven Principles of Public Life’.
Are you sure that the information you provide is true, and that you are not making misleading or exaggerated claims? While you need to argue strongly for your client’s case, it is not ethical to deny or discredit factually correct information from opponents. ‘Astroturfing’, or overstating the level of public support for your case, also calls into question your integrity and honesty. You may need to challenge your client or your board to ensure that they are telling you the whole truth. Consultants make an ethical decision every time they take on a job: do you trust this client to be honest with you? Once you know the facts, your skill lies in framing a credible argument based on accurate evidence to win your case.
Access to the democratic process should be on a transparent, equal and appropriate level. Public affairs professionals should not normally hold a parliamentary pass and should never use one for gaining access in order to lobby. The problem of getting into Parliament for meetings when you have to queue with tourists has been raised, and MPs have flagged this as a problem that wastes everyone’s time. Success in public affairs should not rely on who you know, but what you know and how you frame the argument. A good contact book has always been seen as an advantage in lobbying but, increasingly, skills and professionalism are coming to the fore and should be more highly valued by clients and employers.
Conflicts of interest
Professionals also need to be aware of potential conflicts of interest between your professional employment and any personal political activism. You may know policymakers personally and see them socially, but it is incumbent on you to avoid situations that could lead to a conflict of interest. This includes discussing client matters when attending conference as a party member.
A public affairs practitioner who is also a councillor should not work on campaigns in their local authority. This should be formally put on record with the local authority.
Finally, if the organisation you work for is paying an MP as a consultant or adviser, both parties need to be transparent about the role and its remit to avoid compromising the MP’s duty to act ‘solely to serve the public good’.
If in doubt, check the CIPR Code of conduct
Dos and Don’ts
- Be transparent about who you are and the issues you represent
- Build your case on a credible argument and accurate facts and figures
- Challenge your client, if necessary, to ensure you have full information
- Avoid conflicts of interest with your personal activities or beliefs
- Ensure freelance staff or others you employ work to ethical guidelines
- Induce public servants to break their code of conduct
- Abuse the privilege of access to Parliament