MEDIA MAGIC: Discreet meetings behind closed doors can be more effective
with appropriate media coverage
THE SOCIAL AGENDA: Charities take on lobbyists to influence
homelessness and mental heathpolicy decisions
GREER FALLOUT: New regulations are being called for in order to restore
confidence in the lobbying industry
Recent events have shown that discretion is no longer necessarily the
better part of lobbying valour. Virginia Matthews reports on an industry
which is learning the benefits of working with the media
Lobbying, one of the more discreet of professional communications
activities, had a major media outing this weekwhen sleaze allegations
regarding MP Neil Hamilton and top political consultant Ian Greer
dominated the headlines. More accustomed to the hallowed halls of
Westminster than the media spotlight, Greer called in crisis media
specialist John Stonborough to field the unaccustomed media attention.
Cash for questions aside, few in the political consultancy sector are
likely to face such a media barrage, but increasingly lobbyists and
public affairs specialists are being called upon by their clients to
utilise the media in what amounts to double-whammy lobbying campaigns.
‘There will always be a need for discreet lobbying, where the last thing
you want is front-page headlines,’ says Gill Morris, head of the
political conferences arm of public affairs specialist GPC Connect, ‘but
we find that an increasing number of clients rely on us to get issues
discussed in as open a way as possible. That sort of brief invariably
involves some degree of media management.’
However as Morris points out: ‘While there are already many firms who
are adept at traditional lobbying techniques, our industry is less well-
versed in effective media campaigning.’
Fresh from her firm’s notable success with last month’s Labour
conference for the business community, which earned Blair and his team a
wad of positive press clippings on New Labour’s romancing of the bosses
(see panel) - not to mention a number of subsequent donations from
wealthy financiers - Morris and others are understandably upbeat about
campaigning through the media.
But if what the Guardian sniffily called ‘Labour’s love-in with
business’ merely confirmed in public months of behind-the-scenes
courtship, then the equally combative relationship between lobbyists and
the press pack is barely beyond the first date.
‘In most instances,’ says Morris, ‘the press should be invited to share
in the message that you are trying to disseminate to the public, not
deliberately kept at arm’s length.’
But to Charles Miller, managing director of The Public Policy Unit and
secretary of the Association of Professional Political Consultants, the
belief that the media can make a difference to more than a tiny number
of lobbying campaigns is unfounded:
‘Of course there are cases where the media should be involved, but the
vast majority of lobbying issues are decided by boring things like legal
argument and submissions, not by whether the Independent has covered it
‘Lots of screaming in the papers might impress clients, but it rarely
brings about what the client is trying to achieve.’
Michael Burrell, managing director of Westminster Strategy, and former
lobby correspondent with Westminster Press, agrees that there are
relatively few issues in the lobbying arena that deserve high-profile
media attention, but insists that those that do merit national attention
can and should bring in the media.
‘Lobbyists such as ourselves have a reputation for being rather grey and
serious people,’ he says, ‘and it is often the case that the issue we
are involved in is some minor matter, of interest only to the civil
servant who is dealing with it.’
‘But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be more creative and colourful
whenever we get the chance,’ he adds. ‘While virtually all our work
will, as a matter of course, involve talking to people at Westminster -
including backbenchers, specialist advisers, civil servants and often
Ministers - it can be no bad thing to get through to these people when
they’re in the shower as well; maybe via a Today interview.’
Good lobbyists, says Burrell, make it their business to arrange media
coverage of a given issue without allowing the audience to see the join:
‘You, as a Today listener, need only be aware that you are listening to
a lively, well-informed debate, not that somebody in the lobbying
industry may well have arranged for that issue to be aired.’
Not so the civil servants and ministers themselves though. ‘No one works
the media better than the politicians,’ says Miller, ‘and no one knows
better how media management actually works. Just because you have
arranged some good press does not mean that they are going to look at
your case with more sympathy.’
There remains a small group of journalists who will, on principle,
refuse to be drawn into any story that involves a press release, but the
majority of journalists are as willing to receive a good story as
lobbyists are to impart one,’ says Nick de Luca, senior associate at
‘If you attempt to sell the home affairs correspondent of the Sunday
Times or the Independent a lousy story, then you look foolish and he or
she will think you are barmy for ever more,’ he says.
‘You might be able to interest the Morning Advertiser in a story on,
say, a tiny change in licensing laws for example - an issue that doesn’t
deserve a general airing but certainly does concern publicans - but to
try and get a big newspaper to run a story on it would damage your
credibility enormously,’ de Luca adds.
Sadly though, say journalists, all too many PR practitioners continue to
offer the wrong types of story to the wrong media, or worse, inflate the
importance of their clients’ stories.
Most lobbyists agree that even if Newsnight or the Financial Times can
be persuaded that their client’s story is worthy of a national airing,
they have little or no control over how the story will be covered or the
spin that will be put on it.
In the view of one bruised lobbyist, this element of uncertainty can
spell danger: ‘The trouble with news journalists is that they are
beholden to the news desk,’ he says. ‘However committed they are to
writing up the story you have discussed with them, in the way that you
and your client would hope, they will follow like lap-dogs the line that
their news editor - who will have had no direct contact with you or your
client and who never reads press releases - chooses to put on it.’
To Angie Bray, a senior assistant with APCO UK, who managed to use the
media to great effect in support of the ‘Daylight Extra Now’ campaign,
the newsdesk or specialist reporter isn’t always the most responsive, or
effective port of call on a large newspaper. By persuading ex-Telegraph
editor Lord Deedes, who continues to write for and influence the
Telegraph’s leader page that APCO’s client had a point, the issue of
extra daylight got its airing.
While most lobbyists are understandably happier to believe that they
have influenced the more serious newspapers of the day, rather than the
tabloids, Burrell gives an example of media manipulation that required
little or no effort on his company’s part:
‘A year ago, the Dover Harbour Board decided that for various business
reasons, it wanted to delay privatisation. When the Sun was informed
that the main obstacle to this was the attitude of the would-be-
purchaser itself - the Port of Calais - it didn’t need much persuasion
to take up the Dover Board’s cause. Within days, it had drafted in
support not only from Vera Lynn, but from the Queen Mother - in her
capacity as head of Cinque Ports - to defend Dover against this so-
called French invasion.’
Surveys are a much-maligned form of media communication which can
generate an enormous amount of attention, says Graham McMillan,
associate director of Fishburn Hedges.
It was his firm, acting on behalf of the Solicitors Family Law
Association (SFLA), that used the media to help bring about important
changes to the recent Family Law Bill, now the Family Law Act 1996.
‘Because our survey on behalf of the SFLA involved couples who were
actually divorcing at the time, it became a central focus for both sides
of the debate,’ he says. ‘It was quoted in the House and helped to bring
about some important changes to what eventually became legislation.’
Case study: Getting Labour’s new message across
When GPC Connect Conferences sent out media invitations to last month’s
‘New Labour - Opportunities for Business’ conference, managing director
Gill Morris found herself and her team overwhelmed with interest.
‘Although we had expected people like lobby journalists and business
editors to come, the appeal of the conference appeared to go far deeper
than that. In the end, more than 500 people turned up on the day, 100 of
them journalists,’ she says.
‘What our conference provided was a public forum in which our speakers
could provide hard evidence that Labour’s traditional views on business
had changed radically,’ she adds, ‘and that was a message that deserved
wide media coverage.’
While GPC couldn’t control the actual content of that coverage, much of
it, even from the Tory-leaning press, was positive.
Although Walworth Road fielded a top-class side for the event - Blair
and John Prescott, Shadow Chancellor Gordon Brown and leading ‘shadows’
Harriet Harman (Social Security), Jack Straw (Home Affairs) and Margaret
Beckett (Board of Trade) - much of what Labour ‘revealed’ about its
attitude to issues such as tax and the Social Chapter was already known,
albeit in rather hazy form.
Ever since the late John Smith’s so-called ‘prawn cocktail offensives’,
Labour has turned relations with business into something of a fetish,
but the fear of losing yet another general election to the higher-taxes
and higher-spending bogeyman remains a real fear among Labour’s
apparatchiks. The desire to set the record straight, and to demonstrate
that capitalism has little to fear from New Labour, provided the impetus
for the event.
What made last month’s conference so newsworthy - the story led all the
main TV and radio news bulletins that day was not simply the calibre of
the speakers, but its timing just in advance of the real party political
conference season, the last one before the general election at which
opinion polls say John Major will be relegated to the position of former
‘If you arrange top-class key speakers and those speakers focus on real
issues, then a political conference such as the one we arranged can’t
help but attract widespread publicity,’ says Morris.
But the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. If Labour doesn’t
end its disastrous electoral run next spring then the love-in with
business will have proved another example of a mountain of press
cuttings without a worthy scrapbook to put them in.
Case study: Re-opening the issue of mental healthcare
At a time when the problems of the mentally ill increasingly dominate
the home news headlines - particularly those that result in attacks on
innocent bystanders - it can be hard to remember that the mentally
handicapped, have their own unique set of obstacles to overcome.
Last summer, the organisation RESCARE which represents families of such
people, appointed APCO to handle a campaign to raise awareness of how
the policy of care in the community is affecting people with Downs
Syndrome and other handicaps.
Ten years ago, many in the social policy field might have argued that a
policy of closing down the old nineteenth century mental hospitals was
long overdue. Today though, it is becoming clear that the closure of so
many of our rambling old Victorian hospitals where the handicapped have
long been offered sheltered residence, often for life, has had a
devastating effect on a very vulnerable group of people.
APCO senior associate Angie Bray believes that for many of these people,
the alternative being offered is simply long-stay residence in what are
little more tiny than suburban houses. Such arrangements not only
curtail their freedom of movement but are totally inappropriate to their
Using as a news-peg the example of Harperbury, Hertfordshire - one of
the hospitals earmarked for closure by its local authority - APCO
engineered a one-day conference on the problems of the mentally
handicapped, inviting MPs, civil servants and the national media to
Two large pieces on this new twist to the debate over care in the
community appeared in the Sunday and Daily Telegraph, while the Jimmy
Young Show, and several regional radio stations, devoted valuable
airtime to how the issue of mental handicap was being overlooked.
The future of Harperbury itself is likely to feature in forthcoming
regional and national TV programmes on both the BBC and the independent
‘Although we cannot say for sure that Harperbury hospital won’t close, I
can report that it has been given a significant stay of execution until
next year,’ says Bray.
She adds that the conference has already generated a lot of political
activity too. Although civil servants and MPs initially responded by
saying that the issue of care in the community had ‘already been
covered’ and decided upon, the conference appears to have rekindled the
‘We are already seeing tangible signs of a re-think of Government policy
on this issue,’ says Bray.
Case study: Shelter opens new doors for the homeless
‘There has been something of creative tension between good media
management and good lobbying to the extent that great publicity can mean
great irritation among the very people you are seeking to influence,’
says Graham McMillan, associate director of Fishburn Hedges.
Pressure groups and charities have, in the past decade, learned a
bookcase full of techniques on how to use the media to influence public
opinion. Today, few serious pressure groups - be they involved in the
environment, in animal welfare, or in medicine - will relegate press and
media relations to the office junior or underestimate the publicity
And most of them have, at the very least, sent their spokesmen and women
on a how-to-deal-with-the-media course, if not a crisis management
Yet, despite these deep pockets and experienced spokespeople, all too
many groups still make the mistake of running to the media like so many
small, bruised boys to their mummy.
‘There are some cases where an issue discussed on Newsnight might mean a
closed door in Whitehall,’ according to McMillan, but it can be
difficult to persuade some of the more combative pressure groups of that
‘If your pressure group wants to slag off a Government proposal, then
that’s fine,’ he adds. ‘But sometimes, it is far more constructive in
the long-term to slag it off to the civil servant concerned, or to his
or her Minister, than to take the whole issue on to Today, which might
really get under a politician’s skin,’ says McMillan.
While the right amount of irritation might just spur Ministers on to
deal with X or Y - the feeling of wanting to clear your desk of a
particularly knotty problem is just as strong in Westminster and
Whitehall as it is in any office - too much will make them feel
exasperated, even picked-upon, and therefore non-receptive to your case.
A clever pressure group, as so many of them are nowadays, might even use
media coverage as a carrot and stick - we won’t leak this top-secret
proposal to the papers, old boy, just as long as you will promise to
give more consideration to our views on it.
Jessica Morris, an associate director at Fishburn Hedges, was between
1989 and 1993 head of the Shelter press office, where in her final year,
the budget was a less than breathtaking pounds 14,000.
‘Despite being a small pressure group and not an immensely rich one,
Shelter has always secured far more publicity for the problems of the
homeless than its size would suggest,’ she says.
By constantly badgering the Government on this issue, and by responding
to every quarter’s official figures on council waiting lists the
intricate connections between Government economic policy and the growth
of cardboard city has never been off the agenda.
The fact that Morris could set up interviews with the then Shelter head
Sheila McKechnie (now director of the increasingly vociferous Consumers’
Association) was a blessing. ‘Sheila will appear on anything from
Question Time to Today and she spoke well on far more issues than
housing,’ says Morris.
‘Most people in PR have been faced with the situation where you’ve set
up an interview with someone important like the Financial Times, and
then your boss says he or she won’t do it. That can be an absolute
‘At Shelter we were always careful to use the media in tandem with
behind-the-scenes lobbying and never to say anything to Ministers that
we wouldn’t be happy saying publicly on Newsnight. It’s important to be
consistent whether you are talking to the public or to civil servants,
and to pitch your message according to who your audience is,’ Morris
Morris has a heart-warming example of how the media could be used to
frighten civil servants and politicans into action: ‘We were having a
very cold wintry spell and I got a call from fieldworkers to say that
homeless young people were frightened to go to sleep on the streets in
case they froze to death. We contacted the Environment Department and
they did nothing...until Sheila went on the radio, that is. Suddenly,
the Government came up with extra cash and hundreds of extra hostel beds
were made available that weekend to some of the most desperate of our