Let’s be honest. So far 2007 has been messy for the public affairs industry and things may get worse.
Thanks to the APPC, the industry is facing an inquiry by the Public Administration Select Committee. I have never known a select committee inquiry endorse the status quo. So the industry is undoubtedly going to face demands for tougher regulation. We also seem to have adopted John Grogan as scourge of the public affairs industry. In the circumstances, St Jude, the patron saint of lost causes, would have been a better choice.
How did we get to this sorry situation? I cannot believe that the leadership of the APPC set out to achieve a select committee inquiry. Yet the wiser members must have realised the dangers of adopting such an aggressive stance in the media towards non-members?
One of the most disturbing features of the current debate about the PA industry is that if you are a member of the APPC it is assumed you automatically adhere to the highest ethical standards and if you are not a member you don’t. The former may be true but the latter certainly is not.
I doubt members of the select committee will differentiate between APPC and non-APPC members. Those called will have to justify what we do to a committee containing MPs who have strong and hostile views about the public affairs industry.
There is no point rehearsing in public the view that we welcome the inquiry. We don’t. I have yet to meet a member of the industry who does. The challenge is therefore to ensure the inquiry is thorough and looks at the public affairs business as a whole rather than just the world of public affairs consultancy. We must prepare for it in the same way we prepare our clients when they are called to appear before a select committee.
I doubt that we will be able to prevent the select committee issuing a report saying the status quo is inadequate and that regulation needs strengthening. What we can prevent is further self-inflicted damage being done to the industry.
The real issue is that the industry needs a public voice with the ability to make a convincing case and to disarm the doubters. That is what the focus needs to be as we approach a testing period for the industry. Now is not the time for faint hearts. We have to believe in what we do and who we are. If we do, the public affairs industry has a chance to win the argument going forward.
Peter Bingle (above) is chair of Bell Pottinger Public Affairs