I’ve tended to shy away from calling the Chelgate political relations team “lobbyists”. I know what springs to most people’s minds when they hear the word : shady, rat-like creatures scuttling through the corridors of Westminster and Whitehall, wheedling, inveigling, whispering and beguiling as they corrupt the processes of power on behalf of their paymasters. Well, that seems to be what the St Paul’s squatters think in any case.
But I’m not planning to discuss how lobbyists came to have such a contaminated reputation, nor even whether it’s entirely unjustified. But I am going to argue that good, professional political relations consultants are actually a benefit to society.
Business people don’t have all the answers, but they do have some. They understand the realities of the marketplace. They know about production and distribution. They learn how to manage. They have to control costs and drive sales. And if they can’t manage their finances, they go to the wall.
But in many ways this nation is a bigger business than any of them. And you’d think that the people entrusted with the task of managing the enterprise and balancing the books would have all the experience and expertise this demanding task takes. But the truth is that only 19% of all current MPs have a background in business, with a further 15% coming from the financial world. So, I suppose we should count ourselves lucky – given their inexperience and lack of qualifications – that we don’t find ourselves plunged into a financial crisis, with a runaway deficit, minimal growth and unsustainable levels of public spending.
Good government listens to the business community. And it draws upon the expertise and experience it finds there. And when it does so, we all benefit. But business needs to talk to Government too. It knows that Government decisions, its regulation, legislation and fiscal policies, will all shape the landscape for business in this country. And it’s right and fair that that business should present its arguments, make its case, offer its advice about matters of concern to it. But this needs to be done properly. There must be rules of engagement, codes of behaviour, restraints and balances. Without that, you have a jungle, where the richest, the most ruthless and and least moral enjoy levels of access and influence which wholly undermine the principles of good government. Anyone who works in international business can name a long list of countries where this is the case.
But not the UK. Because here we have a well-established set of procedures and practices setting out the ground rules for the way business communicates with Government. And we also have a well-established government relations profession – some might call them lobbyists – who understand those rules, and who work to ensure that the voice of business is heard, but in a way that is ethical, honest and transparent. Or should be.
So, I do welcome steps to tighten up the rules governing the lobbying profession. But at the same time I worry that this might become one of those “stampede” causes which end up rushing blindly, too far and too fast, straight over the Cliff of Lost Common Sense. In particular, we need to differentiate between advice and representation. When my firm represents a client – whether to Government, the media or any third party, we do so openly and honestly. Our interests are clear, and so is our client identity. But when another client comes to us for advice, not representation, then I can see no good grounds for demanding that this should be a matter for public disclosure. We are, we should remember, confidential advisers, and that confidentiality is a professional attribute, not a cloak of shame.
In an earlier blog, at the time of the Burson-Marsteller / Facebook “Black PR” story, I wrote this:
“ At Chelgate we have a number of clients whom we have never disclosed. These clients come to us in confidence. We work with them, we advise them, we develop strategies on their behalf, and all of this, I believe, is a matter between those clients and ourselves. We don’t reveal their identities, and we don’t disclose the nature of our work. But nor do we publicly represent them.
On the other hand, when we act for a client, when we argue their case to the media, or solicit the support of politicians; or when, for example, we engage with an NGO, a local council or an academic institution on their behalf, in fact, whenever we act as the go-between for our client with any third party, then of course we indicate who we are acting for. Any other approach would be furtive and creepy. And that’s not how professional PR should be.”
Public affairs and government relations advisors should be able to operate as professionals. They should be able to advise in confidence, and their clients should know that not just the content of the discussion, but even the fact that it has taken place, will remain confidential if that’s their wish. This is no business of anybody else. Indeed , for some clients, even the fact that they are seeking advice from a particular consultant could be a matter of sensitivity if made public. But when that consultant moves beyond consultancy, and begins to represent , that is when we need true transparency. We have to be quite clear about who is acting in the interests of whom. And that’s when we should have a compulsory register of lobbyists and their clients – but reflecting representation, not turning private consultation into a matter of public speculation.
The signs, though, are that the lobbying / public affairs profession in this country has difficulty differentiating between the two functions. And the concept of confidentiality seems ready for sacrifice on the altar of transparency. Maybe the profession is cowed by recent scandals. Maybe it has trouble distinguishing between confidentiality, secrecy and deceit. But the (in many ways admirable) Association of Professional Political Consultants demands that “members must disclose the names of all their clients and consultants in the APPC register”, stamping firmly on the thought that anyone might be able to go to an APPC member for discreet and confidential advice, without finding the fact promptly disclosed in the Register. The UK Public Affairs Council, on the other hand, seems unwilling or unable to distinguish between representation and consultation, blithely conflating the two in its decree that “lobbyists are those who, in a professional capacity, work to influence or advise (my italics) those who wish to influence the institutions of government in the UK”
In advocacy and representation, we need transparency. But this firm at least will never deny clients the opportunity for private, confidential consultation and advice without finding their name listed in some register of lobbyists’ clients.