Lobbying: Do Audiences Really Understand What We Do?

A series of scandals have recently impacted on public affairs. Despite those involved being David Cameron and Boris Johnson, they have been labelled as ‘lobbying’ scandals. This potentially damages us all.

We have to appreciate that if the reputation of the profession is damaged then it has a direct impact on all of us. The audiences we have to work with, internally or externally, are less likely to listen or be willing to be associated with us. They could rightly worry that some of our poor reputation will rub off on them. They may even question our motives, our actions or the way we operate. Could our activities bring reputational damage on our employers or clients?

I don’t blame anyone for thinking like that when the only evidence they see is so negative.

That is one of the reasons why we all have a role in supporting the work of the CIPR and PRCA and their efforts to help the reform process.

A recent survey by the CIPR found that two-thirds (67%) of UK adults feel the public should know more about lobbyists seeking to influence MPs and Ministers. So, transparency is a key word for us all.

The study, by Opinium, also found that the majority of the public believed that businesses and organisations such as charities, trade unions and pressure groups should be able to meet with MPs and Ministers with the intention of promoting ideas to inform and influence public policy (59%). They also recognised, and this is critical for us all, that lobbying can help create better policy and law (52%).

The CIPR and PRCA have both set out proposals for changes to the current lobbying rules. We now all wait to see what the Government will do.

But should not be the end of the story for those of us in the profession. We should also think about restating the basics of our role to help reassure people.

  • We have to remind audiences, internally and externally, of the value we bring whether that is in terms of policy development, enhanced networks or better legislation or regulation. We can’t let adverse attention detracted from the value we bring.
  • Highlight the high ethical standards by which we operate – a large number even fail to declare Codes of Conduct according to a PRCA survey. We should think about being clear about the standards we operate to as it will provide reassurance if nothing else.
  • Always be alert to ethical behaviour, inside or outside our organisations, that fall below the standard required and call it out. We all have a role in policing.

It seems to me that there are some fundamental misunderstandings about what we do in public affairs as well. These too need to be tackled head-on. Rather than laughing off comments about ‘brown envelopes’ or ‘politicians only listening to money’, we have to explain what we do and how different the reality is. We all wish that issues of poor behaviour or practice didn’t arise but the reality across all professions is that they do. The rules need to be right and action taken.

Together we can ensure that the reputation of public affairs is not tarnished.

Stuart is a public affairs and communications specialist with BDB Pitmans advising clients on all elements of their public affairs strategies including political and corporate communications and reputation management. His work also includes consultation and planning communications and he has advised on a number of high profile media relations and crisis communications programmes. Stuart is an honorary research fellow at the University of Aberdeen and is the author of several books including ‘New Activism and the Corporate Response‘ (heralded as a book that “every aspiring business leader should read” by MIS Asia), ‘Public Affairs in Practice’ and ‘The Dictionary of Labour Quotations‘. His most recently published book, ‘Public Affairs: A Global Perspective’ has been called ‘an absolute treasure-trove’ and is a recommended read by the Government Communication Service (GCS). Stuart regularly writes and lectures on a range of business and political issues and as well as blogging for BDB Pitmans he contributes to the Huffington Post and has written for the CBI, (former) UKTI, Total Politics and LabourList. He is also an adviser to the Entrepreneurs Network (TEN) and a regular speaker and chair at conferences. He has appeared on Sky News, BBC 5 Live, BBC World, the Today programme and on Ukrainian TV and has been a judge for the Public Affairs News, PR Week, Public Affairs and the European Public Affairs awards. Stuart is a CIPR trainer leading the 'Practical Public Affairs' course.

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