Tag Archives: public affairs

Were you up for Portillo (on lobbying)?

Last week, on the BBC’s This Week programme, former MP and memorable victim of the electorate’s wrath, Michael Portillo, spoke about the recent so-called lobbying scandal.

Since seeing it live – it’s on at about 11.30pm, putting off most viewers – I’ve watched it on BBC iPlayer many times. In about 90 seconds, he beautifully sums up the churlishness of portraying the recent stings on politicians as a scandal about lobbyists, even though none were involved. This is a point being made by many decent, integrity-driven public affairs practitioners, and one which is roundly ignored by the media.  [If anyone reading can tell me when the last lobbying scandal worthy of national media hysteria that actually did involve lobbyists was, please do let me know.]

But Portillo goes a step further even than that, expounding the crucial role that lobbying plays in politics. He goes so far to say that without lobbying, politics would not function. You can watch it here, 25 minutes into the show:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b02w2wxt/This_Week_06_06_2013/

Or, if you can’t be bothered to click on it, or are simply unwilling to catch a glimpse of Andrew Neil in the presenter’s chair, here’s a transcript of what Portillo said:

“It’s perfectly clear that the things of which these people are accused would be offences. They would be against the rules and they would certainly lead to their expulsion from their parties and possibly suspension from Parliament, and so on. So it’s perfectly clear that the rules are already in place.

Secondly, it’s pretty clear that these people were all caught by a sting; in other words, there wasn’t a real lobbyist involved at all… So actually, creating a register has nothing to do with what’s just happened… If you create the register, you simply allow people to find our more easily, the people that are genuine lobbyists and those that are journalists.

But let me make a fundamental point: all politics rests upon lobbying. The principle rooms in Parliament are called lobbies. And the reason they exist is to allow the public to come into Parliament and visit their Members of Parliament, and they meet them in a place called a lobby, which is the origin of the term, and the interchange between the people who have interests, which need to be considered or even protected by Parliament and the people in Parliament, is fundamental to the democratic process. And since time immemorial, to smooth the interface between the public and the different vest interests, and the Members of Parliament, there have been people who undertake lobbying, and lobbying can be a very respectful thing, and without lobbying, politics wouldn’t function.”

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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?

Call me Mystic Meg, part one: more woe for lobbying

On Friday I blogged about how politicians have been deflecting criticism by turning the spotlight on supposedly dodgy lobbyists. Two weeks ago I wrote about the uphill struggle that pressure groups, such as the Cyprus lobby, will face in trying to gain support in the post-election Parliament.

I should be feeling smug that the news in the last 48 hours has proved me right! Instead I am exasperated and angry in equal measures. For today, I’ll concentrate on the attempt by Dispatches to entrap politicians in a lobbying scandal, as I’m currently just too angry about the nature of the reporting of the story about MPs’ trips to Cyprus and could land myself in legal hot water.

Stephen Byers, Patricia Hewitt and Geoff Hoon have acted without regard and respect for the rules for Parliamentarians and their suspension from the Labour Party is thoroughly deserved. But putting their misjudgement in this saga aside, it is surely true that the way in which politicians have drawn negative attention towards lobbyists in recent months will have been a motive behind the Dispatches sting.

The media are increasingly hell-bent on unearthing examples of politicians acting against the spirit of the platitudes and proclamations from within the political firmament. This can then be used to portray the whole of the Parliamentary machine as without principle, untrustworthy and on the make. Which, by and large, it isn’t, but that’s not the interest of the media. So how do politicians react?

In her statement to the House of Commons yesterday, Harriet Harman announced that the Government will introduce a statutory register of lobbyists, a measure that had been considered and rejected just a few months ago.

Do you see what’s happened? A news story breaks which involves journalists and MPs but NOT ONE LOBBYIST and, surprise, surprise, politicians kick the dog.

Lobbying on behalf of the lobbyist

As the green shoots of spring and recovery are appearing, so are the traditional signs of an impending election: the Conservatives are avoiding talking about Europe, Labour is defending its financial links with the unions and the party leaders’ wives are competing with their spouses for media column inches.

A more subtle sign is that politicians are diverting criticisms from the political arena onto soft targets. Bankers are number one on the list, but lobbyists are also in their sights. David Cameron has promised a crackdown on lobbyists if he becomes Prime Minister and it is rumoured that Alistair Darling’s budget will propose a ban to stop publicly-funded bodies from hiring them.

This bothers me on many levels, principally because the term “lobbying” just doesn’t apply to what our industry actually does. In more than a decade of working in public affairs in the UK, I have not been asked, either by a client or an employer, to undertake any sort of duty that would breach the spirit or principles of ethical lobbying. This is in stark contrast to my experience of working on Capitol Hill, where I saw the sort of real hard-nosed, direct lobbying that the public is being told is tainting British politics.

What we “lobbyists” do is to help our clients to identify, define, hone and articulate their messages, and to advise them who their target audiences are and how best to engage with them. Our clients might sometimes be multinational corporations, but so too might they be charities, trades unions or local government, or operating in highly-specialised industries or policy climates.

Sensible, robust governance depends upon clear, informed communications between the Government and those stakeholders which its policy, regulation and legislation will affect. And that communication is more crucial now than in the past, as career politicians with little experience outside the Westminster bubble are increasingly replacing MPs with real world experience, whether it was from commerce, the public sector, education or the armed forces.

Calling for transparency in public affairs is a no-brainer and our industry knows that its future depends upon maintaining a reputation for probity and professionalism.

My hope is that the fuss about lobbyists is simply diversionary pre-election politics. In my years in public affairs there has been one “scandal” that I can recall and that involved Derek Draper saying something a little silly, but ultimately harmless, about who he knew in Government. Hardly on the same level of deceit as, say, deliberately fiddling your expenses, is it?

Consultants: who needs them?

It may be an odd question for a public affairs consultant to ask potential clients, but what’s the point of consultants?

There are three reasons why you might use a public affairs consultancy:

  1. to supplement an in-house team
  2. as a substitute for an in-house team
  3. as an alternative to an existing, but deficient, in-house team.

But the value they deliver is largely in your hands. Getting the most out of your consultants is simple and here are some DO and DON’T tips to help you get value and keep the relationship healthy:

DO look for particular skills and experience that enhance your in-house capabilities

DON’T use consultants to do what you can already do in house

DO keep your consultancy on its toes by testing it against the market

DON’T put a consultancy through a pitch process if you know you’re not going to appoint it: it’s unfair and wastes everyone’s time

DO use them to challenge you with objective, external views; they may see things you’re too close to see for yourself

DON’T hire sycophants to tell you what they think you want to hear

DO listen to their advice, no matter how unwelcome; their fresh view might be more widely held among stakeholders than your own opinions

DON’T act on their advice without thoroughly questioning the reasoning behind it

DO use their networks to improve your political intelligence

DON’T expect access to Ministers: consultants should tell you who to see, when to see them and what to say. Politicians will meet with you because you have a legitimate right to communicate your business interests to them, not because a consultant calls them up

DO work with your consultants to define and hone your messages and materials

DON’T expect your consultants to articulate those messages: that’s your job

DO give your public affairs activities enough time and senior attention

DON’T be drawn into over-extensive stakeholder contact programmes with irrelevant stakeholders; it may just be the consultants trying to justify their fee

DO demand transparency of fees. If they charge a “management” or “administration” fee, ask them why – the practice is outdated: why should you pay extra for a consultant’s office costs?

DON’T blame the consultant if you give them no work to do; no good consultant is happy to take money for nothing

DO find time to engage with your consultants socially; a friendly relationship is usually a more productive relationship

DON’T let that friendly relationship stop you from challenging your consultant’s advice.

Businesses pay a lot of money to consultants. But both sides have an obligation to ensure that it’s money well spent.

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.