Regulating the Public Affairs Profession Won’t Protect Politicians From Themselves

So, here we are again. Just over three years since outgoing MPs were secretly filmed making sleazy deals with undercover journalists posing as lobbyists, a virtually identical sting appears to have caught out even more parliamentarians.

In many ways, the offences allegedly committed this time round are even more egregious. Last time, outgoing MPs agreed to work for lobbyists once they were out of office. This recent sting apparently saw MPs and Peers agree to table questions, set up All-Party Parliamentary Groups, and otherwise abuse their position in exchange for payment.

It seems mad to me that anyone in Parliament who remembers the 1990s would willingly agree to table cash in exchange for questions; you’d think they would have realised that this wasn’t going to end well. But in any case, if these reports are indeed fair and accurate, (and perhaps we shouldn’t jump to conclusions just yet), it seems that at least a few Parliamentarians felt, for whatever reason, that such behaviour was acceptable, or that they at least would not be caught.

All this has led to renewed calls from politicians and the media for a statutory ‘register of lobbyists’, which, whilst predictable, is a bit of a non-sequitur, as not a single lobbyist – registered or not – was actually involved in this affair. Given that politicians were apparently the only people found to be misbehaving, one would logically assume that they would be the main targets for opprobrium and punishment.

Instead, while a few figures in the media and in Parliament have seen this as a renewed impetus for a ‘recall’ bill, or for more rigorous standards for parliamentarians’ conduct, most have focused their ire on lobbyists, and specifically on proposals for a statutory ‘register of lobbyists’.

I have long been sceptical about the sense, usefulness, feasibility or desirability of a statutory register. I would like to think that the fact that the government has so far failed to implement one, as promised in the coalition agreement, points to the fact that some in Downing Street agree.

In fact, the term itself is not one I would ever ascribe to myself or any of my colleagues at Chelgate. As I’ve written before, the word “lobbyist” itself reeks of negative associations. The general public tend to think of lobbyists as “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.”

Beyond the superficial image problem, this view is simply factually inaccurate. Professional government relations is not and should never be confined to the ranks of full-time lobbyists. In fact, it’s very difficult to unpick PR from “lobbying”. It’s often only after we begin work for a client that we realise that we may need to engage with the political process in order to achieve their aims. If one of our account executives was not a “registered lobbyist” and was leading a project for a client, only for it become clear that some political engagement was necessary in order to achieve his client’s objectives, would he be obliged to bring everything to a halt and tell the client “sorry, I’m not a registered lobbyist, you’d better go find one”?

This problem would apply to many other firms, too. More traditional consumer PR firms, which do not consider themselves to be ‘lobbying’ outfits, may find themselves unable to provide the full range of services that their clients need, or else may need to re-skill and refocus on lobbying in order to make the cost and effort of registering worthwhile. Remember, the importance of MPs for our profession is not restricted to their ability to regulate or legislate. They are opinion leaders and vectors of information. They write articles, send letters to editors, make speeches all over the country (not just in parliament), offer media comment, take part in panel shows. They are mini media maelstroms, generating attention and shaping attitudes. So of course they will be legitimate audiences for PR professionals. How ridiculous to think they are so precious and susceptible to improper influence that only registered lobbyists might be allowed to brief them on anything.

But even specialist, full-time lobbyists recognise that few successful PA campaigns can be based solely on targeting politicians. Any worthwhile Member of Parliament will allow his or her opinions to be shaped by a small but essential universe of information and opinion , including their constituents, the media, other experts and professionals. A “lobbying” campaign that takes no account of these other audiences and points of influence would be pretty crass, clumsy and likely to fail. So the proper lobbyist is not a denizen of the Westminster shadows. He or she has to operate in the daylight of public opinion where arguments are made and challenged, information offered and tested. It’s a healthy process and one which enhances communication between Parliament and the rest of the country.

I also have doubts about the prospect that this statutory register would force firms to make all their clients public. But this doesn’t mean that I am in favour of secretive or underhand representation. In circumstances where we are directly engaging with policymakers, elected officials, civil servants and the like, Chelgate always makes clear who we are representing. This is the right thing to do from an ethical perspective, and it simply makes sense if we are to engage with these stakeholders in a useful way.

But bull-headed supporters of the bill are pushing for a much broader disclosure requirement, which would require firms to disclose all of their clients, whether they are actively ‘lobbying’ for them or not. This is a seriously senseless proposal, especially given the woolly thinking on how exactly lobbying should be defined.

The Commons committee looking into the statutory register last year sifted through myriad definitions of lobbying, and ultimately could not decide which one to use. If the legislation were to define lobbying too narrowly – say, as an individual employed by a firm, who makes direct professional contact with elected officials on behalf of a paying client – it would be far too easy to get around. It seems more likely that the government might opt to cast a wider net, including anyone – freelancers, in-house staff, agency staff – whose work involves directly engaging with parliamentarians or, crucially, advising or assisting clients on engagement with parliamentarians.

Some clients engage us when they are not facing an acute crisis or issue, but seek our services in developing a crisis management plan in case the need ever arises. The broad definition of lobbying that is currently attracting the most support, seems to mean that we would have to disclose our work for such clients, even when the work is entirely precautionary, and part of a broader plan in which direct political engagement may only be a minor part.

Chelgate, offers a specialist crisis and issues management service. Many clients who engage our services are facing sensitive issues that may their affect share price, consumer confidence, staff morale and brand image, among other variables. By making public the fact that they have engaged a specialist in crisis management, these firms may exacerbate the very crises they have engaged us to manage. That is why more than half of our clients ask us to sign a non-disclosure agreement. But even without that NDA in place, we see no reason why private consultation with Chelgate should be a matter of public record.

Such a drastic shake-up would perhaps be understandable, or even desirable, if unethical behaviour was found to be widespread throughout the PR industry. But that simply isn’t the case. We have seen a few politicians make tremendous errors in judgement, some acting with incredible stupidity and others with an apparent disregard for their obligations as parliamentarians. We have seen the media engage in underhand campaigns of entrapment which would never be permitted to the police, for example. And yes, one or two slightly stupid PR and government relations professionals have boasted unconvincingly about their levels of access and influence. But there is really no evidence of a corrupt or malign public affairs profession in need of regulation and registration. How politicians react to improper inducements from journalists pretending to be public affairs professionals has no bearing at all on our profession – any more than a pickpocket dressed as a priest would tell you anything about the clergy.

Some might argue that if these regulations had been in place beforehand, this latest scandal would not have happened: the MPs and Peers in question could have looked at the register and seen that these fake firms were not legitimate. These individuals’ apparent greed and disregard for public office would not have come to light. Politics would have continued as usual. But it seems strange and wrong-headed to apply onerous and unnecessary restrictions to our profession in order to prevent parliamentarians from abusing theirs. And you can be sure that the journalists concerned would have found a way to adapt their approach. Regulating the public affairs profession won’t protect politicians from themselves.

Instead of facing up to the problems within their own domain, some in politics and journalism have opted to go after a scapegoat. They are proposing unworkable changes that will fundamentally hurt the ability of businesses, NGOs and private individuals to make their case to their publics. They do nothing to stem the loss of trust in Parliament, or to sort out the problems in their own ranks.

If that is the lasting legacy of this scandal, expect to see history repeat itself before too long.

Terence Fane-Saunders