Public Affairs: The boom in consultation

Public affairs agencies are becoming more heavily involved in government consultations than they ever have before. Chris Scott reports on the PA shops that are handling major projects

Amid the gloom of falling income from traditional M&A and competition sources, public affairs agencies have seen a boom in demand for consultation work at both local and national level. From managing public meetings to running focus groups, lobbying firms have moved increasingly in the direction of this kind of government affairs project work.

While there is no clear, substantive evidence of the volume of consultation work being undertaken by public affairs agencies, anecdotal evidence from senior political consultants suggests that since Labour came to power in 1997, consultation work has gone from being a minor aspect of public affairs to a pillar of the industry's bread and butter work.

The featured five agencies (see panels) do not represent a ranking but a list of the PA firms that have handled some of the biggest consultations of the last year, and have been building their businesses off the back of this growing trend since New Labour came into power.

AS Biss & Co founder Adele Biss attributes the rise in consultation work to the attitude of the Labour Government: 'Under this government there has been a very clear thrust to be more consultative for a large number of issues. People who are impacted are empowered to respond and there is a great deal of encouragement to consult them at central and local government level.'

Stephen Byfield, CEO of PPS, which specialises in local-level consultation - in particular planning issues - agrees that consultation work has risen markedly, but doesn't expect the trend to end here.

'It has gone from being nothing to 50 per cent of our business in the last ten years, and there will be an awful lot more if the proposals in the Planning green paper (requiring a statement of community involvement in planning decisions) go through,' says Byfield.

He suggests that the effects of the Nolan Committee investigation into lobbying of the Scottish Parliament are key to the growth in consultation: 'The traditional way of doing things such as ringing up a councillor and putting your case is no longer an option. We had to think of new ways of putting a case across - by selling it to the local community who in turn would press the case.'

GPC managing director Kevin Bell - who estimates that consultation work has gone from accounting for two to ten per cent of his agency's work in the last two years - suggests that corporate sensitivities have also played a part in the apparent boom.

'Companies are very sensitive about anything they have to do as consumers, and residents are more aware of what is going on due to technology. If you don't get local residents on-side you face an uphill struggle. In the old days the public had to write to their local MP to complain, now you can have hundreds e-mailing complaints,' he says.

The increase in public access to information, courtesy of developments in technology, is a key factor, agrees Edelman director of public affairs and ex-Tesco public affairs chief Bernard Hughes. However, he believes that other factors are at play, particularly in planning consultation.

'There is a dramatic rise in the number of people leading campaigns against business developments from their conservatories and home offices.

That trend will not stop in a housing market where people's houses are a very important asset. People will be sensitive to protecting those assets,' he says.

Demand from clients for consultation assistance has risen markedly. Hill & Knowlton public affairs MD Andy Pharoah says that for both businesses and government, consultation is now vital: 'It makes sense to gain as broad a possible consensus and make sure that you involve people with an interest, be it the local community in planning matters or an NGO in other matters. It's also tactically astute. Before taking a decision, ministers will wonder not just if it is the right decision but how it will be received. If you can reassure them that it will not be rejected completely then it strengthens your hand.' Pharoah adds that proposed changes to company law and corporate governance will only further increase requirements for consultation with stakeholders.

McLeod adds that it has become de rigeur to include a consultation process in any controversial project likely to spark debate.

Hughes agrees: 'Businesses have to be able to predict risk and gain intelligence on potential problems. The army used to call it reconnaissance; we call it consultation,' he says.

He also believes that the high stakes involved explain why external consultants are being asked to assist with such frequency: 'Anything threatening the growth of a business means they need to make sure they get it right. Businesses realise they need critical friends who can ask the questions that you can't if you're in-house, and who have specialist knowledge in the field.'

While impending legislation looks set to continue the rise of consultation at local level, McLeod suggests that national consultation will continue to increase too: 'Governments are always looking at changes and reforms to public policy. You should never underestimate the power of the Whitehall machine to make work for PA agencies.'

With ongoing consultation over the draft Communications Bill, air transport and corporate governance involving the majority of public affairs agencies, the importance of consultation work to their bottom line looks set to increase steadily.

WEBER SHANDWICK/GJW

The public affairs arm of the world's largest PR agency is heavily involved in the consultation process, with joint MD of public affairs Jon McLeod estimating that such work currently accounts for a quarter of the firm's PA work.

Over the last year, WS/GJW has worked on arguably one of the most controversial international consultation-led public affairs briefs, the effort to win World Bank approval for the Bujagali dam in Uganda.

The agency co-ordinated consultation programmes at Ugandan and international level to make the case for a hydroelectric facility in the African nation, which suffers from severe energy shortages.

The agency is currently understood to be heavily involved in consultations surrounding the DTI's energy review, assisting retained clients British Nuclear Fuels and hydroelectric firm Highland Light and Power. WS/GJW is believed to be providing advice on consultation with local stakeholders and supporting and advising representations to the government.

It is also involved in a waste management consultation programme for Essex County Council, and is involved in planning consultation over mobile phone masts for retained client T-Mobile.

AS BISS & CO

AS Biss & Co founder Adele Biss says that the bulk of the agency's consultation work involves assisting clients with submissions on complex topics.

The firm is working for Crossrail, the company seeking to construct two new cross-London rail links, gathering views from councillors, planning officers, businesses and politicians for the feasibility study into the proposed routes.

For RAC Motoring Services, AS Biss recently secured immunity to congestion charging in London through consultations with Transport for London and mayor Ken Livingstone, by representing RAC's role in easing congestion.

Its work with The Association of Convenience Stores involves preparing responses to the DoH's consultation on Employer Liability, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister's consultation on Fire Safety Legislation and the DTI's consultation on EU Price Indications and Sales Promotion Directives.

Earlier this year, the agency assisted BT in consultations with the Government and key stakeholders over plans (eventually abandoned) to require planning permission for each phone box ad.

WESTMINSTER STRATEGY

Westminster Strategy director Tony Sophoclides says that the bulk of its work derives from central government consultations and preparing clients for select committee appearances.

The agency is believed to be involved in consultation over expansion of UK air capacity, working with Birmingham International Airport.

It is also known to be involved in consultation surrounding the proposed Water Bill - utility firm South West Water is a retained client.

It continues to represent the Producers' Alliance for Cinema and Television - the trade association for independent production companies - and is understood to have assisted the body in its representations for the draft Communications Bill.

Westminster is also believed to have provided consultation advice over the Animal Welfare Bill, with the Pet Advisory Committee and Pet Food Manufacturers' Association among its clients, while its work for Norwich Union has seen it consulting over private pensions.

The agency is also thought to have aided Aventis Pharma and Aventis Pasteur Merieux MSD in preparation for appearances before the Health Select Committee.

APCO

With APCO focused on consultations at national government level, director Martin Sawer says it is fundamental to the agency's work, and not an add-on service.

APCO is also believed to be involved in consultation over expanding UK air traffic capacity; the APPC lists FedEx among its clients. The agency is also known to have clients involved in the DTI's consultation on implementing the EU directive on Postal Services in the UK.

The agency's firm presence in the healthcare field has also seen it involved in consultations over prescribing practices - understood to include consultation on e-prescribing - with client Lloyd's Pharmacy, and on health insurance with PPP Healthcare.

It is known to be involved currently in at least nine health consultation processes, including the NHS Hepatitis C Strategy, Women and Mental Health, IT Support procurement and e-prescribing. The agency's clients are known to include Eli Lilly, Roche, Novartis and PPP Healthcare.

APCO is also involved in consultations with the Home Office over entitlement cards and benefit fraud, and is one of the many agencies involved in consultations around the draft Communications Bill.

PPS

Specialising in consultation work at local and regional government level, PPS chief executive Stephen Byfield says that consultation work accounts for around half of the agency's income.

Principally this work in the regions revolves around planning developments on an ongoing basis, often for a list of retained clients.

Sainsbury's Property Company, the property management and development arm of the supermarket giant, retains PPS to handle consultation work for its developments and new stores.

Mobile phone operator Orange works with the agency over consultation for the development of radio telephone masts and addressing health and safety issues with stakeholders. Current projects include consultation with local residents for the proposed development of a new south stand at Twickenham for client the Rugby Football Union, while others retaining the agency on similar briefs are National Car Parks and Lattice Properties.

Byfield says that such consultation involves running focus groups, exhibitions, planning exercises and discussions with stakeholders. These are often run with two aims: gaining feedback from stakeholders, and to build coalitions to help prove the proposal's merits.

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