Author Archives: The Altitude Consultancy

Lobbyists: how to lose friends and alienate people

When Altitude was being formed as a company and we were discussing a name for the company, I jokingly suggested that we call ourselves Bill Pottinger, so that we might accidentally be invited to tender for work. Had we gone down that route, perhaps the public affairs industry would have been spared the embarrassment poured upon it by the ‘sting’ that takes up the first seven pages of today’s Independent.

Under-cover journalists from something called the ‘Bureau of Investigative Journalism’ invited ten London firms (not including Altitude) to pitch to a (fictitious) Uzbek organisation to promote its supposed interests. And, according to today’s report, Bell Pottinger employees made some rather staggering – and rather foolish – claims pertaining to their personal influence over members of the Government and Downing Street staff.

A few points immediately spring to mind…

1. After so many attempts by the press to dirty the reputation of lobbying, they seem finally to have succeeded in including some actual lobbyists in the story. Not fictitious ones acted by journalists to catch out politicians, nor businessmen with an interest in swaying political decisions but with nothing to do with the public affairs industry. No, this time they have actually caught out some real lobbyists. Well done the Independent – you’re the first paper to at least identify some lobbyists!

2. Let’s just re-read part of that story. Ten firms were approached for the fictitious work for the fictitious Uzbeks. Of those, two refused the work and three didn’t respond. Of the other four firms, there is no mention. Could it be that they – whisper it – acted ethically? Given the apparently scurrilous nature of the entire public affairs world, surely this is the newsworthy element!

3. And while I’m on that subject: I’ve written here before about how journalists are desperate to find a group in society on which to shift the focus of public disgust from the press itself. Yesterday, the Independent gave a curiously large amount of space to the establishment of The Journalism Foundation. The paper’s editor, Simon Kelner wrote:

“Journalism itself has had a bad press recently: here is a positive initiative that seeks to redress the balance and, whatever you may think when following the latest developments from the Leveson Inquiry, it’s in all our interests that, if nothing else, we keep monitoring those centres of power.”

Quite right too, Simon. Mud has been thrown and it has stuck, even on the holier-than-thou Indy, whose owner and financial backer, we discover in Kelner’s last paragraph (by which most people have stopped reading), are the founders of the Journalism Foundation.

Lo and behold, the day after the fanfare about this cuddly new Foundation – a new knight in shining armour to salvage the reputation of the press – we have an attempt to demonise the public affairs industry. Which compels me to quote Kelner again:

“…this skulduggery was practised only by a small minority, and one of the prices to be paid for having our vibrant and diverse press is occasional unruliness born of competition.”

He is referring, of course, to the press, not to the public affairs industry, which his newspaper today smeared with one broad brush. That’s a smart line in hypocrisy.

4. Some people – especially some of those who have worked within the circles of power but then faded away and perhaps feel resentment – really cannot help but boast in order to make themselves feel better about themselves. It happened before and it will happen again – it’s the frailty of the human ego. That doesn’t make the claims true.

5. The vast majority of the public affairs industry – represented in this instance by the unidentified firms that did NOT want to work for the shady outfit cobbled together for the Indy’s sting – whether members of industry associations or not, have long called for a regulatory code. This is because they have nothing to hide and want their industry respected for the legitimate role it plays in informing government policy.

It will be interesting to see how this story plays out. By 8.15am today, Twitter was flushed with comments on why this story wasn’t gaining more coverage on the BBC. I’m starting to hope that it escalates and is addressed at the highest levels because now that actual lobbyists are involved, it cannot be ignored.

Previously, I’ve defended my industry in the belief, gained through more than a decade’s experience in it, that the many, many people I’ve worked with are representative of the industry as a whole: honest, decent people who are open in their methods and who help their clients to open doors with their messages and arguments rather than their black books. Regretfully, I was wrong.

Let’s have a proper review of the industry, looking at how the bad apples may have smeared the reputation of the rest of public affairs (if, indeed, any actual wrong-doing took place). Without such a review or inquiry, it seems that the industry is destined to death by a thousand cuts, mainly inflicted by journalists trying to lift themselves from the bottom rung of the public’s ladder of disdain.

Political scandal? Time to kick the dog again…

Last year I blogged about lobbying, pointing out how the poor old lobbyist seems to be the end of the easy target in a political crisis, the dog that politicians and media go home and kick at the end of a bad day.

It seems that history is repeating itself and, once again, a lazy shortcut down the path to an unpopular but misunderstood cohort of practitioners of the supposedly ‘dark arts’ of lobbying is once again being beaten.

The scandal of Liam Fox’s friend Adam Werrity has predictably resulted in a call for tighter restrictions and regulations on lobbyists. This case is very similar to last year’s case on which I blogged – insofar as it hasn’t actually involved a bona fide lobbyist!

Proposals for a statutory register of lobbyists have long been supported within the public affairs industry, mainly because the industry has nothing to hide. In the recent case, it was Adam Werritty, who must surely have had no doubt that what he was doing was not wholly ethical or above board. In other words, he did have something to hide.

Being neither a lobbyist or in a position where he would have wanted to publicise his dubious activities, how on earth would a register of lobbyists have made a difference? Werritty would not have been required to be on the register – he’s not a lobbyist, he’s just a chancer of a businessman who abused the position of a friend. And even if he were a lobbyist it is unlikely that he would (a) register himself and put himself up for scrutiny or (b) given his clear lack of moral or ethical compunction, be swayed by any statutory requirement to register.

But once again, the whole saga provides two of the most abhorred sections of society – politicians and journalists – to take the moral high ground and kick the lobbying dog. Never let the facts get in the way of a good story, eh?

Justice is justice, whatever the political climate

One of the Altitude directors recently came across the Labour Party’s 1990 policy programme and searched for the party’s policy on Cyprus:

“Labour believes that Turkish troops must withdraw from the island and that Cyprus should be reunited on a federal basis which restores the unity of the island with full safeguards for the Turkish minority.

“A Labour government, as one of the guarantor powers, will use its influence at the United Nations and elsewhere to help bring this about. Meanwhile, Britain should not agree to Turkish membership of the European Community.”

An easy bit of internet searching brought up the Conservative manifesto pledge on Cyprus from 1992, which reads:

“We seek a solution to the dispute which has divided Cyprus since 1974. A settlement must recognise that Cyprus is indivisible and that the rights of both communities must be assured. We will support the UN’s efforts to secure a fair and lasting solution.”

Of course, we now view things in the context of a world changed by the horrors of 11 September 2001 but should our principles as an international force really have changed so much to have diluted these stances down to what is now essentially a state of political ambivalence on Cyprus?

I think not. Justice is justice, and we should seek to impose it constantly and without wavering. Tell your MP.

High-speed rail: let’s just copy the French

So the potential route for a high-speed rail line from London to the Midlands, North and Scotland has finally been announced. Cross-party support for the concept suggests that it may be built one day. But in Britain, that’s no guarantee that it will.

We, as a nation, have a lamentable record on major infrastructure projects, especially regarding transport. The politics is wrong, the process is wrong and the funding is wrong. Take two examples from rail and aviation.

The French built their high-speed, long-distance rail link to the Channel Tunnel before it opened. Britain opened our 67-mile branch 15 years after the Tunnel opened. The French link was built with public money; ours with private money that was inevitably bailed out by the state anyway. The French decided their route quickly and got on with building it; we spent years blighting large areas of Kent while a wide range of routes was considered, as much for political-electoral impacts as for geography, heritage and ecology.

Heathrow’s Terminal 5 opened in 2008, 25 years after it was first proposed. The planning inquiry alone took four years, during which time the French conceived, planned, approved, built and opened two new runways and another terminal at Paris Charles de Gaulle airport. And T5 was to be built within the airport boundary, between the two runways, on land then only being used for a sewage farm.

I remember taking a party of UK transport journalists to Charles de Gaulle as part of the T5 campaign and asking my French counterpart how long the planning inquiry took to approve the new terminal. His bemused reply was: “But we had no inquiry. We just applied to the council and they approved it. It’s just like applying for an extension to your house.” Even the compulsory consultation over compensation for local residents only took three months. Then they just got on with it.

After the T5 debacle, the Government said enough was enough and Deputy PM John Prescott initiated a review of planning that led to the creation of an independent Infrastructure Planning Commission for major infrastructure projects of national significance. The aim was that Government would set strategic priorities (ie whether there should be a new high-speed line or runway), and the IPC would determine how and under what conditions a project is delivered.

So what hope for High-Speed Two to Birmingham and beyond? I can see several pitfalls that will at best, delay and at worst, kill off this bold scheme.

First, the route will drive through the Conservative Chilterns and I can’t see a Conservative Government being eager to alienate true-blue voters in Bucks, Beds and Oxon. A Labour Government wouldn’t care – as these people don’t vote Labour anyway (just as it was no surprise in 2003 that Stansted was chosen over Heathrow for a new runway, given the dearth of Labour seats in north Essex and the plethora under Heathrow’s flight paths).

Second, heritage, environmental and other interest groups will band together to fight it and join forces with affected communities. The National Trust has already weighed in. Other Luddites and flat-earthers will follow.

Third, there will be continual haggling over the inclusion of Heathrow. While a route via Heathrow would benefit business users and encourage a switch from some domestic air travel to rail, it doesn’t make economic sense for the project. That won’t stop the strong business and regional lobbies pushing for it, adding to delays.

Fourth, we just never seem to find the cash for mega projects like these. Crossrail will have taken 30 years from when it was originally proposed to opening in 2017, and just look at the mess over the London Underground upgrade – and that’s a crisis over a mere £460 million, not the £30 billion plus that HS2 will cost.

And finally, if the Conservatives win power they have resolved to strip the IPC of its independent authority and make the Secretary of State responsible for the final decision, making the whole thing rest on political, not economic, variables. Back to square one.

I didn’t expect ever to say this, but sometimes (not in matters of personal hygiene and military strategy, of course) I wish we could be a little more like the French.

Give me President Zuma over King Charles any day

So President Zuma of South Africa is in town for a shindig with the Queen. The media is holding its collective nose and offering sympathy that Her Maj has to endure such an appalling, untrained houseguest.

Frankly, I wouldn’t be so keen to have him shack up at mine either, but then my two-bed flat would ill accommodate his clutch of wives and none of my friends’ daughters would be safe from his libido. I’m also unimpressed by his unfathomable view that post-coital showering is adequate protection against HIV, while the allegations of rape and corruption (he was acquitted) make me distinctly uneasy.

So God save our Queen, eh? Not a bit of it. Because I’d rather have President Zuma as my Head of State any day. I don’t have anything personal against the old dear at Buck House (Windsor, Balmoral, Sandringham et al), and as you may have gathered, I’m not a particular fan of JZ. But you know, at least Zuma is there because he was elected. And he can be voted out too after five years, or removed mid-term, as was his predecessor. When is Liz up for reselection? And let’s not even start on her philandering, meddling, barm-pot of an eldest son. King Charles? You’ve got to be kidding.

What is it with us Brits that in the 21st century there is such collective tolerance of democratic serfdom? We can vote only for our MP, our MEP and our local councillor and we have no say at all in our Head of State.

So next time someone like President Zuma pops across for a bit of a nosh and a chinwag with Liz or one of her chinless progeny, bear in mind that, unlike her, he is in his position legitimately, as a result of millions of votes.

May I have my own vote now, please?

Pleasure yourself. We do!

What is the perfect job? Apple gadget tester? Guinness taster? Most of us have a dream job, but in almost all cases it remains just that: a fantasy. But if you could set up a company and do exactly what you want, how you want, when you want, what would it be like? Well, we did and we called it Altitude.

A little over two years ago, towards the end of a second bottle of merlot, the conversation changed from “what if?” to “how?”, and the concept of Altitude was born. Three firm friends, who had worked together nearly 20 years ago, each with very different and complementary skills and personalities, decided to stop working for other people and to work for themselves.

We stole all the experience from one of our friends, who had done it five years earlier, and just seven weeks from that first conversation we registered our company. By then, we had already drawn up a five-year plan, setting our long-term objectives and goals and worked out the strategies, measures and targets (OGSMT) that would get us there. It may seem little over the top for a three-person consultancy, but it has given us focus and a framework in which to operate. Our OGSMT has barely changed since, other than to add a “J” for “Joy” to the end, of which more later.

It has never been about money: it is about choosing a way of living. Altitude is a lifestyle consultancy: a company created, for better or for worse, in our own image, allowing us to be and to do what we please in our own, idiosyncratic way. Providing a professional, top-notch service is, of course, paramount and we never compromise on the quality of our work. But that leaves our consciences clear when we mess about the rest of the time.

We have clearly-defined roles which play to our individual strengths. The Chairman is also Fire Warden, for instance. And we have a Company Secretary, Director of Finance, Director of IT, Director of Design, Director of HR, Director of New Business, Director of Grammar, Head of Car Hire, Chief Wine Taster, Health and Safety Officer and a Grand Pooh-Bah of Joy. Our diminutive consultant is also Stationery Manager, Women’s Officer, Head of Diversity and Small Business Manager.

We allow sufficient space for very different ways of working. So Altitude accommodates anally-retentive control-freakiness (Steve), fence-sitting forgetfulness (Tony) and deliberating, accident-prone introversion (Richard). Our flexible working arrangements provide ample scope for Richard to come to work an hour later than the others (despite getting up an hour earlier), and more holidays than you can shake a stick at.

We do everything by consensus. If we don’t agree there are several dispute-resolution mechanisms. The first is to browbeat the others into submission (the Steve approach); the second is to think about things for a very, very, very long time and then decide you don’t really care either way (the Richard approach); the third is rock-paper-scissors (the Tony approach – which he persists with despite never winning). When it comes to clients, each of us has a veto, though Richard can’t conceive of any circumstances in which he would ever exercise his.

We have half-yearly strategic business performance reviews, which have so far taken place in Krakow, Bruges and Rome. The next one, in June, is in Berlin and happily coincides with the World Cup and the appearance of big screens in beer gardens.

We always – and I mean always – look for the ridiculous and the humour in everything. We are relentless in exploiting each other’s weaknesses, winding each other up and playing tricks. This approach extends to our favoured clients, one of which we won while playing word bingo – seeing who could get the most words associated with his name into our pitch.

In fact, everything we do must be underpinned with Joy. So we have a Joy Agenda, directed by the Grand Pooh-Bah of Joy (Tony), with a Joy Budget and a Joy Index (with measured targets) within our five-year OGSMTJ. The aim is to exploit anything with Joytential. We have a range of Joy activities, many of which are conceived and executed at the Punch Tavern, including our annual Christmas party and our inter-client pub quiz. The long-planned Altitude Joy Olympics has been delayed due to holidays, but a dazzling opening ceremony will be followed by pool, darts, bowling, pinball, the quiz machine and other sporting events.

It may seem that we are a bunch of overgrown kids, and I suppose we are. But we are also running a business that has won, retained and expanded some prestige clients because of the utter reliability of the work we do for them. We only live once and we want to have fun in the time we spend at work. And how cool is it to start up and run a company and do exactly as you please with it?

Very cool. Take it from us.

BA chief’s anti-union argument doesn’t fly

“We will not allow Unite to ruin this company,” said BA‘s CEO, Willie Walsh, yesterday, after 81% of cabin staff voted for strike action on a 79% turnout. This ballot, re-run following BA’s successful quashing of a ballot run at the end of the year, confirms the huge opposition among BA’s employees to the changes that BA is trying to impose on them.

Walsh is trying to position this dispute in the industrial relations language of the 1970s, as a battle between a reasonable company and a bullying union hell-bent on destruction. But this is not the 1970s and BA’s employees are not militant miners or British Leyland workers, led by aggressive class-warrior opponents of capitalism. BA cabin stewards are a broad spectrum of working-class and middle-class men and women working in a service industry in the 21st century. They did not start this dispute by demanding extortionate pay rises; they are seeking, entirely reasonably, to protect their jobs and incomes from changes being forced upon them. If there is an aggressor in this dispute, it is Walsh.

His positioning of this as a dispute with Unite, the union to which the vast majority of BA’s cabin crew belong, is wrong. The days when a strong union leader could call a strike and intimidate workers into joining it were ended by the Thatcher union reforms and the crushing of the NUM in the early 1980s. In BA’s case, cabin crew took part in a secret ballot, and they voted against the company in their thousands. This is not a dispute between BA and Unite, but between BA and its employees, and for him to regard the cabin crew as pawns of their union is to disregard the legitimacy of their concerns. This is a disastrous industrial relations strategy.

Ultimately, Walsh will have to reach a compromise and the day-to-day operation of BA will get back to normal. But he has irreversibly damaged his relations with his own employees, who will not quickly forgive nor forget his railroading of them. Companies flourish or fail through their employees and a service industry even more so. BA will be having bumpy flights for some time to come.