Public affairs consultants may hate the idea, but political lobbying conjures up images of deals done behind closed doors in smoke-filled rooms. This perception is in stark contrast
to the ideal of transparency, openness and responsibility that many PA organisations have eagerly pursued in recent years.
According to the Institute of Social and Ethical Accountability – more widely known as AccountAbility – many corporate lobbyists are still insufficiently open. It argues that companies that practise 'behind-closed-doors' lobbying (while claiming transparency in their CSR reports) must clean up their act for the good of the PA industry's image as a whole.
A recent report by AccountAbility and UN Global Compact – which convenes companies to discuss issues such as human rights – sets out international proposals for 'responsible' lobbying practice. 'Companies have become more responsible in areas such as ethical sourcing; it is now time for them to address their lobbying,' states the report. It also includes a six-step framework to enable organisations to assess their own lobbying practices and identify areas in which improvement is needed (see box, p28).
Written with the backing of partners such as the Co-op Bank, Gap and Novo Nordisk, the report suggests lobbying is one of the few business practices to have escaped scrutiny in recent years. 'We felt that political lobbying was one of the missing pieces in the corporate responsibility puzzle,' says AccountAbility PR manager Mark McKenzie. 'We want PROs and public affairs professionals to consider that while lobbying is a legitimate business activity that is here to stay, there is an urgent need for consistency between an organisation's stated values and its lobbying practice.'
He adds: 'Failing to heed this is a PR disaster waiting to happen. There is also little point in being transparent about other activities if you are keeping lobbying under wraps.'
Certain US companies – including General Mills, Kellogg's and Kraft Foods – have recently come under fire in the media for lobbying to defend their right to advertise to kids while claiming in their corporate CSR documents that they protect children's interests. A new group formed by these companies – the Alliance for American Advertising – even insists: 'There is not a correlation between advertising trends and recent childhood obesity trends.'
AccountAbility is by no means alone in highlighting this issue. A recent WWF report on 'the conduct and content of corporate lobbying' found that only 51 per cent of firms in Standard & Poor's Global 100 Index provided some degree of transparency around their activity (PRWeek, 22 July). None declared the extent to which they used professional lobbyists.
Another report, from UK environmental lobbyist the Green Alliance, also notes inconsistencies between corporate public affairs work and the CSR statements of companies. It concludes: 'Through direct lobbying or indirect affiliation to trade associations, companies may be sending out public affairs messages that show a marked inconsistency with their public stance on sustainability issues.'
The report goes on to claim that such inconsistency can lead to mistrust among the public – and cause suspicion among the very people the organisation is lobbying.
What can public affairs specialists, PR practitioners and other reputation managers do to address these issues? According to Greenpeace UK executive director Stephen Tindale, a two-faced approach can be dangerous. 'One of the largest reputational risks a company can face is exposure as a hypocrite,' he says. 'The current gulf between corporate green-speak and the behaviour of trade associations is just such a risk, and exposure will not be long coming.'
The Green Alliance recommends that companies disclose all their public policy positions within their sustainability reports; publish affiliations to trade associations and other alliances on their websites; and ensure that government affairs teams are familiar with CSR policies.
But is this practical? 'The WWF, Green Alliance and AccountAbility reports only have a partial vision of what lobbying is about,' complains Weber Shandwick Public Affairs MD Jon McLeod. He adds that much lobbying relates to micro-issues rather than big policies that are suitable for public exposure. 'Just because businesses make private representations to government does not necessarily mean that there's something murky about what is going on,' he says. 'A lot of what businesses do is private because it is commercially sensitive.'
McLeod points out that companies, government and professional lobbyists are already bound by numerous codes of conduct. Their watchdogs include the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and self-regulatory groups such as the Association of Professional Political Consultants. 'There are a variety of emerging norms of practice that create the ethical framework for lobbying,' McLeod says.
Peter Raynard, one of the authors of the AccountAbility report, suggests PA consultants might have got the wrong end of the stick. 'We tried to please and annoy everyone at the
same time,' he admits, adding that the point of the report was merely to stimulate debate on the issue of responsible lobbying.
As an example of hypocrisy he cites member companies of trade associations. He says the lobbying activity of these trade associations does not necessarily complement that of their members. Raynard argues that such inconsistency would be fine if members of these trade associations actively tried to change practice from within, but claims many simply ignore the issue.
Conflicts of interest
The AccountAbility report included a case study on Shell and its approach to CSR, largely concerning its involvement with the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), which recently ran a campaign against the UN's proposed Norms on Business and Human Rights. The trade body claimed that the proposals were excessively legalistic and would shift responsibility away from governments and onto companies.
Given that the ICC commission responsible for the campaign was chaired by Shell V-P of social responsibility Robin Aram, the company suffered heavy criticism from NGOs. They claimed Shell's approach to CSR was inconsistent with the ICC's opposition to the UN 'Norms'. Shell insisted it was not being inconsistent and could not dictate the policy of trade groups simply by membership.
Companies in Shell's position might have argued that it is better to try and bring change from within a membership group than to resign from that group and have even less influence.
AccountAbility concludes in its report: 'Membership and active involvement of trade bodies brings with it responsibilities, and thus perceived inconsistencies and accusations of hypocrisy, all of which demonstrate the difficulties that bedevil a deeply divided area of lobbying.'
But McLeod, like many others in the lobbying world, remains sceptical about claims that companies routinely say one thing for CSR purposes and then do another behind closed doors in the name of lobbying: 'If that sort of
behaviour is exposed then the public will make their own judgement. You cannot have situations where, say, a financial services group openly says it is trying to do something about financial exclusion but then quite clearly has insensitive policies and approaches in its dealings with government. That just wouldn't work.'
Elsewhere, there is support for such company-wide consistency. Lionel Zetter, managing director of Parliamentary Monitoring and president-elect of the CIPR, says:
'Communications must be consolidated. There has to be a consistent message in this day and age with an honesty of presentation, too. Companies and other organisations shouldn't find themselves in a position where they are fearful of writing an e-mail or letter to back up what they have said in a conversation.'
But whether PROs should seek to minimise apparent inconsistencies in business practice or just be open about them is up for debate.
Warwick Smith, chairman and chief executive of Citigate Public Affairs and former chair of the Association of Professional Political Consultants, argues that AccountAbility, the Green Alliance and other such groups come to the table with a pre-determined agenda. 'I think they have a prejudice against business,' he says. 'There seems to be a presumption that everything charities and NGOs do on the lobbying front to achieve their ends must be good, while everything in the commercial sector must be bad. That clearly isn't the case.'
He points out that medical charities, for example, are often fighting their corner against similar charities that want a slice of the same cake. But resources are finite, and that is why lobbying is needed on behalf of organisations. 'Good and bad in lobbying terms is much more complex than these reports suggest,' adds Smith. 'CSR has brought about a lot of helpful change, it is not just about corporate spin. But concentrating on what is said in lobbying and what is said for CSR purposes can introduce a view of the lobbying world that is at best inconsistent, and at worst simplistic. This is confusing.'
Other consultants say public affairs professionals should take these warnings to heart. Bell Pottinger Public Affairs MD Peter Bingle says: 'If companies are being contradictory then journalists will pick it up fairly quickly. The world is a media village, and whatever a company says in one market will be exposed elsewhere fairly quickly.'
Bingle points out that the current Government has gone out of its way to make the lobbying process something that benefits both the companies concerned and the wider community –
and says this will benefit companies with CSR high on their agenda in the long term.
'I think things have changed massively in this country since Labour came to power,' he says. 'The Government has made a real attempt at greater inclusion of business in groups such as working parties. There is an acknowledgement that a lot of practice in the commercial sector can be good for government as well. I also believe that the dialogue between government and the corporate sector has become more accountable.'
But AccountAbility's Raynard is convinced that more could be done by companies and NGOs to make their lobbying practices more transparent and open. 'Creating change and a more friendly lobbying environment has to come through business and government working together – not through lobbying consultants working on their behalf,' he insists.
Raynard suggests companies should consider signing up to the UN Global Compact as a first step towards openness and accountability. Next, they could counter charges of perceived inconsistency by being more transparent about their lobbying activity: clearly stating their major lobbying positions and ensuring that their audiences know how those policies fit in with wider strategy.
'Perhaps the target for criticism – the lobbyists – are the wrong target,' suggests Raynard. 'They are, after all, merely serving the needs of the companies they work for.
'The real change has to come from the companies, government and associations that represent group views. Trade associations certainly need to be more clearly representative of their members and more transparent – they should take into account the stated sustainability goals of the companies they represent.'
We asked several companies and consultants for examples of moves towards more transparent lobbying. Many initially seemed keen and then shied away from participating or making themselves available for interview on the subject. Several consultants said they were sure their clients would be happy to participate but then withdrew the offer after requesting permission.
BT is independently highlighted as it takes the trouble to openly state its public affairs approach on its website (www.btplc.com/Thegroup/Publicaffairs/Publicaffairs.htm). The site includes details of BT's areas of interest and its relationships with government – in the UK and overseas. It is backed up with briefing notes on public policy issues, select committee responses, and more.
BT was initially keen to be interviewed on the subject but, after consideration, preferred to release the following statement: 'Our lobbying activities are transparent and are conducted within the competitive bounds in which we operate. For example, we publish details in our Annual Report of what are classed under the law as political donations. We publish statements on policy issues on our website, and work with many others within trade associations and similar bodies on matters relating to our industry, the law, the environment and the future prosperity of this country.
'Like many organisations we strive to improve our transparency in such matters, but there has to be a balance between full transparency and a sensible commercial approach. We are very aware that too much information can be unnecessary and unwelcome.'
Out of tune
What are the consequences for companies with inconsistent positions on corporate social responsibility and lobbying? They might not get away with it, but that does not mean that they do not do it. Recent high-profile examples include American cereal makers lobbying to protect their right to advertise sweetened cereals to children. This despite regularly stating their commitment to help prevent child obesity.
BP has also come under fire for demonstrating such inconsistency. The company publicly supported the 1997 Kyoto Protocol to control greenhouse gas emissions. Its position was in stark contrast to that of most of the major American oil companies. Yet, in May 2002, Greenpeace New Zealand discovered that BP was continuing to participate in an NZ-based lobby group that aimed to stop the country's government from ratifying the Kyoto Protocol.
There are also examples of trade organisations campaigning against proposed regulations – in contrast to messages from their members. For example, Europen, the European Organisation for Packaging and the Environment, actively campaigned against Germany introducing a deposit system for various beverage containers to promote recycling.
Europen claimed that there were few environmental benefits. This despite various Europen members, from Procter & Gamble to Unilever, actively encouraging package recycling.
The report defines responsible lobbying in two parts. Firstly, as 'being consistent with an organisation's stated policies, commitments to stakeholders, and core strategy
and actions'. Secondly, as 'advancing the implementation of universal principles and values (such as those embodied in the UN Global Compact) in business practice'.
The report includes a six-step health-check that companies can use to see if they are in the 'danger zone' or moving towards 'responsible lobbying':
1 Are your lobbying positions in line with your strategy and actions, principles and values?
2 Are you lobbying on the important issues that affect your organisation and stakeholders?
3 Are you open and responsive to stakeholders in developing and debating your lobbying position?
4 Are you transparent about your lobbying position and practices?
5 Do you know who is lobbying on your behalf and where your spheres of influence are?
6 Are management systems and guidelines in place to ensure that what you do in practice is effective and in line with strategy and policies?