Following today's revelations over the conduct of public affairs consultancy Bell Pottinger, the executives for which have been caught on camera dispelling the 'dark arts' that they practice and claiming access to the heart of Government, Liam Herbert MCIPR, director of JBP's parliamentary Affairs team, analyses the role of lobbying companies.
Once again the public affairs industry is in the spotlight for “practicing dark arts”. Almost every month there is a new revelation about the industry and its tactics.
However, two things spring to mind.
Generally speaking these stories have nothing to do with lobbying.
1. Lobbying is an established part of the democratic process – we all do it, when we contact our local councillor or MP. The issue debated in the press is the way business lobbies MPs and national government and herein lays the problem.
2. The public affairs industry has been its own worst enemy. Failing to communicate clearly what it does and how it works. In many cases actually obfuscating the issue as some companies like to present its work as complex and difficult and highly specialist when in the main it is just engaging with a particular audience or stakeholder group in exactly the same way that PR companies do day in and day out.
The industry should have nothing to fear from transparency. Indeed regulation is already in place with the UKPAC (UK Public Affairs Council) which after a shaky start is becoming more established. The PRCA already publishes details of companies engaged in public affairs, including named individuals in organisations and the clients they have represented.
Calls for a “statutory register” should be handled with care. The industry must be better at self-regulation and more importantly demonstrate clearly and effectively that it is doing so.
The question of lobbying is wider than simply castigating commercial interest and business for seeking a voice with government. The role of charities, special interest groups and the pressure groups in seeking to influence legislation is equally important.
Equally, just because organistation communicate with our elected members does not mean they automatically heed or act on the information they receive. We elect members to exercise their judgement on our behalf. To do this effectively the need to understand a whole host of subjects and to appreciate the impact (ususally unintended impact) of the legislation they propose. So therefore clear, open and transparent communication from all of us as individuals, or business, trade union, charity, pressure group is essential to help them formulate good law.