When a senior journalist recently made some remarks to an industry colleague and me about how they regarded public affairs, the words ‘schmoozing MPs’, ‘lunching with special advisers’, ‘fixing legislation’ and ‘drinking with journalists’ came out. When we asked, jokes aside, what he really thought we did, it transpired he had not been joking.
It is worrying that parts of the media continue to hold such an outdated view of modern PA practice, far from the realities of our industry in 2004. However, what is of greater concern is that these preconceptions and prejudices, by no means unique to our journalist friend, are largely the result of a small handful of high-profile PA scandals dating back to the ‘cash for questions’ debacle of 1994.
These rare events have certainly not helped the image of the industry. Ten years on, the alleged actions of a tiny number of individuals still frequently set the tone for the entire debate about PA practice and have somehow become established, in the minds of many, as the norm rather than the exception. However, the greatest scandal is that as an industry we have allowed this to be the case. As a group of people whose daily lives involve helping organisations to communicate better, we have not been particularly good at taking our own advice.
The real shame is that we are talking about a discipline that has made enormous strides over the past decade, blossoming from its niche Parliamentary affairs and government relations roots in the 1970s and 1980s into a powerful communications and management tool. Public affairs in 2004 is a highly skilled and professional discipline that makes a real and tangible difference to the business and corporate success of our clients. This applies not only to the external clients of PA consultancies, but also to the internal ‘clients’ of in-house practitioners. Modern public affairs is something we should all be proud of, but we need to communicate better the reasons why.
While the benefits of effective public affairs are very real, the implications of our collective failure to educate and communicate are every bit as tangible. The efforts of the Scottish Parliament’s Standards Committee to press for swingeing statutory registration or even regulation of ‘commercial lobbyists’ – perhaps ironically delayed by a scandal involving the committee’s own chair – are the most stark example of fundamental misapprehensions about public affairs leading to ill-conceived drives for unnecessary regulation. The fact the committee intended to draw an utterly artificial distinction between ‘commercial lobbyists’ and in-house practitioners again exemplifies the lack of understanding about professional PA in 2004.
Things are certainly improving, though, with agency colleagues selling public affairs in a more informed way and clients purchasing PA support in a more planned and structured manner. However, it is still all too frequent that a colleague or client will ask for an MP contact programme or a Parliamentary reception as a means of raising a firm’s profile. Profile and understanding per se are of little value. It is how these outcomes relate to corporate objectives that really matters. But there is growing consensus that the industry needs to start taking the fight back to our critics. Unless we take the collective issue of our own communications seriously, we forgo the right to complain that we are misunderstood.
First, we need to be better at amassing and communicating the demonstrable proof of the real value that PA practitioners add. Unless we can show why public affairs 2004-style is something every CEO or director of communications should be thinking about, we will continue frequently to be brought in too late and with the wrong brief.
Secondly, we need to be able to show the extent to which public affairs has professionalised over the last ten years, through the development, by our major trade bodies, of codes of conduct that are regularly reviewed and written into every staff member’s induction process. The flip-side of this, of course, is that those in public life – and indeed the media – must also continue to adhere to the highest standards.
Last September’s Phillis Review of Government Communications highlighted the role and responsibility of the media in determining the ways in which the Westminster bubble, including much of the UK’s public affairs industry, is perceived. Like Phillis, the Hansard Society’s Commission on the Communication of Parliamentary Democracy, chaired by Lord Puttnam, is known to be taking a keen interest in the role of an increasingly cynical and often sensationalist UK media.
Finally, we need to be clearer about what public affairs is in today’s world. The overlaps between, for example, a PA practitioner’s work on community consultation and that of a CSR specialist, or PA activities around a corporate disaster and the role of crisis PR experts, mean that the ever-broadening role of public affairs runs the risk of the discipline being ill-defined. This is, of course, a commercial and marketing issue for all those involved in PA consultancy – there is no suggestion that there is a single model we should all be adhering to. However, this risk of unclear definitions is an issue we will all have to consider, individually and collectively.
These are the issues that the PRCA is setting out to address with a re-energised membership and new set of terms of reference.
We are embarking on a major educational programme with clients and potential clients, based on a clear set of case studies, value statements (from clients and those in government and Parliament), guidelines on purchasing public affairs and an Insider’s Guide to Public Affairs. These materials, plus guidance papers on public affairs, are being made readily available to all PROs to ensure clients move beyond preconceptions and truly understand modern public affairs.
Working closely with fellow trade bodies such as the Association of Professional Political Consultants (APPC), we are also developing a programme designed to communicate the existing and stringent self-regulation – through the PRCA and APPC Public Affairs Codes of Conduct (as well as the PRCA’s Consultancy Management Standard) – that the vast majority of the industry are signed up to. In part, this is to ensure public bodies such as the Cabinet Office, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and the Committee for Standards in Public Life are fully up-to-date with the ways in which the industry has already put its own house in order.
This will also ensure that our and the APPC’s members are kept up to date on relevant issues such as the implications of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act, the Planning Bill and the work of the Scottish Parliament’s Standards Committee.
As much as the industry needs to take responsibility to communicate what we do more seriously, the benefits we bring and the professionalism of our work, our audiences across the board also need to be willing to listen. Our industry colleagues, the media, purchasers of public affairs and PR, and those in our public institutions need to be open to the fact that public affairs has already moved on. This will, of course, not happen overnight. But accepting that the duty to convey what the industry does more effectively rests with us, and actually doing something about it, will be a good start.
A DECADE OF SCANDAL
October 1994 – ‘Cash for Questions’
On 20 October 1994, The Guardian published an article claiming that Government ministers Neil Hamilton MP and Tim Smith MP had received money from Harrods boss Mohammed Al-Fayed for asking questions on his behalf in the House of Commons. Smith resigned immediately, while Hamilton proclaimed his innocence but was eventually forced to resign his position as Corporate Affairs Minister.
July 1998 – ‘Drapergate’ and ‘Cash for Access’
In mid-1998, a sting operation by Observer journalist Greg Palast alleged that former advisers to the Labour party, while in opposition, had used their contacts to set up ministerial meetings for clients of lobbying firms they were now involved with, had obtained advance copies of Select Committee reports and secured places for clients on government task forces.
Derek Draper, a former adviser to European Commissioner Peter Mandelson, had allegedly boasted to journalists he could set up meetings with the ‘17 people that count in the Labour government’ and ‘introduce potential GPC clients' to Roger Liddle, a senior member of the Number 10 Policy Unit. Liddle was claimed to have promised to set up meetings.
Draper was forced to resign from his post at GPC while Liddle has since become the PM’s European adviser within Number 10.
September 1999 – ‘Lobbygate’
In late 1999, a second media sting operation saw claims made by the Observer’s Ben Laurence that Kevin Reid, son of then Scottish Secretary John Reid, had been playing on his political contacts for commercial advantage, while working for Scottish comms consultancy Beattie Media.
A former client also alleged that Kevin Reid said he was the son of the Scottish Secretary while pitching for an account. Following robust evidence to the Scottish Parliament’s Standards Committee, in which Gordon Beattie noted that ‘I do not ask people I recruit who their daddy is’, Beattie Media continues to be a dominant player in the Scottish PR market, although the Association of Scottish Public Affairs severed its links with the company, which closed down its public affairs operation.