Time is running out to keep the lobbying industry alive

Public affairs firms must take action to attract good people who want to do good work

If our industry is to survive, Sonia Khan argues that we must make  the case for advocacy to the generations that follow us
If our industry is to survive, Sonia Khan argues that we must make the case for advocacy to the generations that follow us

The Greensill scandal didn’t tell us anything new, other than highlighting that a former Prime Minister can struggle to lobby the Government as much as the rest of us.

Take out the names of the people involved, and the scenario is one we all recognise. In the past 30 years, we can all pinpoint a ‘Greensill moment’ where there has been questionable access – or attempts – to influence senior ministers.

And for years, the suggested solution has been the same: to improve transparency and ensure all who lobby are caught on lists and not just those in agencies as well as bolstering legislation. But if our industry is to survive, we must be on the front foot.

All of the above is right, but we must also make the case for advocacy, as we now call it, to the generations that follow us. We must explain what good practice looks like, how we can maintain it, and how we can use it to educate and reform in the right way. We must highlight the legitimate campaign successes that put issues on the radar of policymakers and can change lives.

We have the capacity to have foresight in our work and to look beyond the horizon for issues, whereas the Government is focused on the day-to-day – and that’s where we can add real value.

But to continue to evolve, we need fresh thinking and ideas, and we have to open up public affairs to those who would never have it listed as a career option. In the same way we answer to our clients and our colleagues in the industry, we must make younger generations aware of our work.

In doing so, we’re opening up to scrutiny, but if we’re transparent this shouldn’t be something to fear. Without it, the industry will forever be labelled ‘dirty’ or feel like the preserve of the rich and privileged, which we know is far from the truth.

To challenge the perception of what we do, we must all operate out of the shadows. The first step is go acknowledge our new audiences, not just the ones around us. It involves hosting open days with charities such as Speakers for Schools, to allow young people to see our work first-hand; mentoring staff; offering paid internships; and breaking down barriers to access. If we don’t, the revolving door of lobbying scandals will probably remain – with a new face every time as public anger mounts.

Recent YouGov research found that a quarter of all voters polled recognised the Greensill scandal – tipping it out of the Westminster bubble. In the same way voter apathy builds distrust in politicians, so could unhappiness with our industry – and unlike MPs, we don’t have a mechanism for survival if we don’t have people.

We have great resources, through the PRCA, and great advocates for our industry lobbying for reform; what we don’t have is time. We can continue our collective good work in changing regulations and legislation, we can’t afford to let good people go because of what they read about us.

Sonia Khan is associate director at Cicero/AMO

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