FOCUS: PUBLIC AFFAIRS - A new lease of life after Nolan/Lobbying in the UK has survived the publicity generated by the Nolan Report and the collapse of IGA but practitioners are having to take a broader more ’holistic’ approach to public a

When the history of modern political lobbying comes to be written, the story of Ian Greer’s fall from grace will remain a cautionary tale for those who seek to bend the rules of play at Westminster.

When the history of modern political lobbying comes to be written,

the story of Ian Greer’s fall from grace will remain a cautionary tale

for those who seek to bend the rules of play at Westminster.

But while Greer’s personal misfortune is no cause for celebration among

his many friends, the entire lobbying industry has in a peculiar way

benefited from all the attendant publicity. Like phobics who have been

forced to confront, and conquer their worst fears, lobbyists can now

concentrate on getting better.

’Parliamentarians are very proud of the way our political system

operates,’ says Charles Miller, managing director of the Public Policy

Unit and secretary of the Association of Professional Political

Consultants. ’And they insist, quite rightly, that matters of lobbying

are played to their rules. When lobbyists treat politicians

inappropriately, or try and treat them as an extension of their own

businesses, then inevitably, problems occur.’

There are certainly fewer MPs on consultancy letter-headings, according

to Gill Morris, managing director of lobbying firm GPC Connect and Dick

Newby, director of Matrix, says clients are being far more careful to

ensure that their relationships with MPs are above board. But has Greer

been bad for business?

In terms of sheer client numbers, says Miller, the 14-strong APPC

membership is enjoying something of an upturn at present, but he adds

that post-Nolan, many clients have already begun to use consultancies in

a rather different way.

’There are far fewer retainers in operation and consultancies are being

used instead on a project-by-project basis,’ says Miller. ’There is

clear evidence that the clients who treat lobbying in a professional

manner - such as British Aerospace, ICI, British Gas, some of the trade

unions and pressure groups for example - are also taking far more

lobbying work in-house.

’There is also, sadly, a far wider gap opening up between the firms who

treat lobbying with some degree of sophistication and the rest of the

client world, who sometimes don’t. That divide is reflected in the

make-up of the consultancy world itself, which sees far more start-ups

of the PR specialist variety than of the genuine problem-solving


Michael Cockerell’s recent TV documentary on lobbying A Word In The

Right Ear did much to debunk the notion that lobbying is solely about

hosting lavish lunches for greedy MPs. It also, according to the Times

review, made for a ’fascinating 20-minute advertisement for the lobbying

services of Sir Tim Bell.’

But according to Morris - who believes that the Greer affair merely

compounded the damage already done to lobbying by Nolan - the world as a

whole continues to misunderstand and mistrust the entire political

consultancy scene.

’I believe that we must now start to strengthen our professional status

and remind people that we are both a legitimate, and a long-established

business. It is inevitable that many people will think of us in terms of

’cash for questions’, but that doesn’t mean we should somehow accept

that reputation. We need to educate clients, Parliament and the


Dick Newby - a proponent of taking an ’holistic’ approach to public

affairs, incorporating a broader range of disciplines such as media

relations and financial PR - takes the view that the days of four-hour

lunching have genuinely given way to a new understanding by clients that

it is what you know, not who. He says: ’ The new style of lobbying

requires new skills; the prime one being that you must understand the

arguments. I believe that despite its problems, this industry is coming

of age and that from now on, we will begin to be seen more like

accountants and lawyers; professional advisers whose intellectual input

is valuable.’

While there will always be a social side to lobbying - partly because an

awful lot of even senior business people are intimidated by politicians

and need introductions - most consultants agree that the importance of

the meeting role is greatly diminished post-Nolan and Greer, even though

some consultancies resent rather than welcome it.

Leighton Andrews, chairman of Political Context, believes that: ’With so

many clients strengthening their in-house public affairs teams, it is

clear that to some extent, our role must develop. But it is equally

clear that for many political consultancies, that change is not coming


Andrews says that while consultants could once rely on ’Hansard

clippings and hand-holding in meetings’, today’s clients demand more

senior people on their business and greater understanding of politics as

a whole.

While the 1980s were characterised, he says, by the desire to draft in

ex-journalists - not just political journalists, but former spokesmen

for key Government departments such as Transport or Environment - the

late 1990s, he says, is a time for heavyweights:

’Ex-clients bring something new to consultancies; they are able to make

judgements and to prioritise and they often engender more trust than the

traditional consultancy management which can too often look like it is

spending all its time running the consultancy. I believe that ex-clients

and ex-researchers will become crucial to consultancies in the coming

five years.’

Andrews says that consultancies must start to focus on two key strands

of people; senior people at the strategic end of the business, supported

by small teams of experienced political researchers. ’There’ll be a

gradual squeezing out of the middle layer.’

Dick Newby adds that ex-civil servants are another rich vein to be

tapped by consultancies. ’They have technical and analytical skills and

of course they also know Parliament extremely well,’ he says.

With a Labour victory now looking like a safe bet in the general

election, most consultancies believe that statutory registration of

lobbyists is on the cards, as well as a tightening up of MPs’ outside

interests. But how long might it take? There is a strong feeling that if

lobbyists keep their noses clean, and don’t attract too much adverse

publicity, Tony Blair will have several other more important issues to

put at the top of his agenda.

’All of us will be operating in a more exposed environment under

Labour,’ says Andrews. ’And I think that tighter controls over lobbying,

as well as MPs, will undoubtedly come.’

These could include a register of spouses’ interests, computerisation of

the journalists’ and research assistants’ database and banning chairmen

and members of Select Committees from holding interests in the

industries which their committees serve both during their time on the

Committee and for a specified time afterwards.

Newby says: ’Labour will be more puritanical generally, but there will

be far less pressure on their MPs to earn lots of money outside their

Parliamentary salaries.’

Michael Burrell, managing director of Westminster Strategy has long been

an advocate of a statutory registration scheme, but he doesn’t believe

that Blair will be too quick to usher in such a scheme: ’Labour has made

noises about lobbying, but New Labour has also found that lobbying has

been a very good route to business in the past couple of years. As long

as it is conducted professionally, I don’t see any change just yet.’

The only important change that might come soon after the election should

Labour get in, says Burrell, is the opening up of opportunities for

lobbying in a whole new arena - the Scottish Parliament that Walworth

Road is committed to establishing.

Burrell does not agree that there is a major move to handling more

’consultancy’ work in-house and says that his own firm’s business has

been on the up since the Greer controversy, (particularly since he and

others directly benefited from the IGA fallout).

Nor does he necessarily agree that the ’gin and tonic’ school of

lobbying is necessarily on the wane:

’One should never utterly rule out the usefulness of lunching,’ he


’After all, over lunch, you can get a politician for maybe an

hour-and-a-half, in a relaxed atmosphere, and without any outside


Who would want to swap that for a 30-minute meeting in a noisy



With the prospects of a Labour election victory now very much in view, a

timely piece of research by the IPRA will examine in depth the

relationship between the business community and the society it


Incoming IPRA President Roger Hayes is to canvass 50 top UK-based

international companies on how they perceive issues management and

whether they support the use of targeted communications on issues before

they reach the crisis management stage.

The overall context of the research will focus on the sometimes shady

public image of the business world and how it can be improved.

Judy Larkin of Regester Larkin, who is working on the research, says: ’A

straw poll suggests that barely five per cent of firms have managed

techniques for the management of issues that have a clear effect on

their corporations. We want to find out if this limited commitment to

issues management is widespread throughout the business world.’

The survey, whose results are due by the middle of this year, will focus

on 50 Fortune 500 Companies, roughly split between the US, Europe and

the Asia Pacific region. Research will be conducted at chief executive

or board management level.

At the heart of the research, says Larkin, will be the question of how

businesses see their relationship to society as a whole and any steps

being taken to forge closer links with the community.

Businesses to be targeted include manufacturers as well as professional

services companies.

’The outline questionnaire, which is currently being looked at by

academics in the UK and US, will find out how they manage communications

functions both internally and externally - attitudes to these two things

often being markedly different - and ask them to assess which are the

most pressing and important issues likely to affect their company in the

coming five or ten years,’ she adds.

’We will also look at how they try to influence those issues in a

positive way and the methods that each use.’

Larkin believes that public health will be a major issue for many

companies, particularly in the light of the BSE and E-coli outbreaks, as

well as general environmental matters, the regulatory framework and the

opening up of companies such as British Gas to competition.

The IPRA hopes that the results of its research will be published in

association with an academic organisation and will be used by

practitioners, rather than adding yet another dust-gatherer to

consultancy shelves.


Single issue pressure groups are now experts at getting support from all

sections of the local and national media - be the issue one of

(allegedly libellous) ’dirt’ on giant hamburger corporations,

potentially murderous road problems or parental fears over the growth of

Ecstasy use at rave clubs.

But with still-rare exceptions, the media that is targeted by ’broader

brush’ public affairs practitioners is predominantly middle-class. When

it comes to influencing street-level opinion - the ’Joe and Joanna

Public’ so beloved of market researchers - the usual tricks of the trade

may not apply, says Edward Bickham, managing director of corporate

policy and public affairs at Hill and Knowlton.

’It’s possibly far easier for lobbyists to deal with the sort of

audience that listens to Today and reads the Financial Times, because

they are the same sort of people that lobbyists are and tend to feel

comfortable with,’ he says.

’But when it comes to targeting what you might call non-opinion formers

- people whose beliefs are possibly key to your campaign, but who don’t

tend to listen to much news or factual programming as a rule - then you

need to be far more inventive in your approach.’

According to Leighton Andrews, former corporate affairs head at the BBC,

now chairman of Political Context ’there is a tendency in lobbying to

assume that everyone reads the quality press and catches Today, but the

audience research figures for the UK don’t bear this out.

’The BBC’s own research shows that a high proportion of 16 to 34 year

olds get their news from Radio 1, from BBC local radio or from

independent local radio,’ he says. ’Central Office may get very worried

about what’s being broadcast on Today, but an awful lot of other people,

especially the young, don’t share that worry.’

He adds: ’It is clear that when you are targeting Radio 1 listeners you

have simply got to find new and relevant ways to present your story and

get your message across.’ But some take the view that the small minority

of people who don’t consume any media at all are unlikely to pose much

of a challenge to lobbyists.

’There may be people who don’t watch, listen to or read anything at all,

but they would be unlikely to be the sort of people who could be

motivated by a lobbying campaign in the first place,’ says Bickham.


A few years ago, the notion of Study Support - out-of-hours learning for

young people from disadvantaged areas - was about as politically

explosive as the battle for more soap in public conveniences.

Yet five years after the Prince’s Trust launched its own scheme to

provide money and facilities for out-of-school study, the issue has been

catapulted to the top of the political agenda and is now supported by

all the major parties. Not to mention firms such as BT, which has made a

pounds 180,000 contribution to the cause.

In recent weeks, Prince Charles has taken the conference platform in

Scotland, to highlight the issue of homework and how it can definitively

help a child to succeed at school, while Labour has seized the study

support baton with figures on how many hours of homework each British

schoolchild should be set.

The Trust, which uses Matrix as an adviser, began with the task of not

only raising awareness - among parents, educationalists, local

authorities and churches etc - of an issue that few had considered

before, but also bringing on-board all the disparate parties who are in

some way connected with education.

’We needed of course to involve the schools and all the other relevant

educational establishments,’ says Jo Naughton, communications manager at

the Trust, ’but we also needed the interest, and hopefully commitment of

the business community, to whom we were looking for funds.’

’At the same time, we also needed to lobby Government, whose educational

policies can have a huge impact on what we do, via a department here

which has responsibility for influencing cross-party policy.’

The Scottish conference at which the Prince made a plea for better

understanding of study support had been booked six months in advance,

but Labour announced its own homework plans the day before. ’We put out

press releases that same day and of course after the conference was

over, to get the maximum coverage possible from the media,’ says

Naughton. ’ It was clear to all of us that our work behind-the-scenes

had had a marked impact on Labour’s pre-election agenda.’

The Prince’s view that out-of-hours study can be as important as what

goes on at school, if not more so, found favour in the general press,

which was targeted alongside specialist educational media.

Soon after, Study Support was given the tacit approval of both the

Government and the Liberal Democrats. By the year 2000, the Trust aims

to develop a national network of 1,000 Study Support centres.

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