LOBBYING is once again in the news and a growing number of people believe there is a grand conspiracy between business and politics that is destroying the democratic process. Businesses stand in huge danger of tarnishing their reputations, and the reality is that lobbying rarely helps them achieve their ends. The practice works for politicians, not for business.
There is nothing inherently wrong with lobbying. Politicians need a constant dialogue with industry, charities, and the public sector to ensure the tax and regulatory climate helps them thrive. Nothing hampers creativity and growth like misplaced legislation. Further, in principle, there is no reason why this dialogue cannot take place discreetly if it produces the right results. But we cannot ignore how the actions of some in business and politics give the impression that discreet lobbying creates the conditions for bad behaviour.
Lobbying works as it does not because it suits businesses, but because it suits the way Westminster and Whitehall operate. Most senior executives are happy to discuss problems with proposed new taxes and regulations with practically everyone they meet. Pressure for discretion comes from politicians and their advisers, who make it clear they do not want to face public pressure from businesses that may turn into negative media coverage.
Clearly this discreet approach is now causing serious image problems for businesses, as the media and outside groups shine a light on the questionable behaviour of a tiny number of people in this world. Senior executives might conclude the public pain this caused them was worth it if it secured the right decisions from politicians. But it has never been clear such an approach worked in the first place.
Ahead of every Budget, there always seems to be a group of businesspeople that believe their discreet, “constructive” approach to public affairs will have secured them a good deal from government. Every year this group of people ends up disappointed.
The simple reality is this: most politicians only respond to pressure. Look at it from their point of view. Their entire career is dependent on the perception they are doing a good job. They need the Prime Minister to promote them and their constituency to re-elect them at the next election. Any serious public criticism has the potential to send them straight back to obscurity.
The negative coverage surrounding the public affairs industry should provide a wake-up call to senior business executives. Involvement in traditional lobbying is not only bad for their reputation, but it is mostly irrelevant too. Businesses should take a completely different approach, and this should come in two parts.
First, and most importantly, businesses that want to influence decision-making within government or party policy formulation should replace lobbyists with campaigners to generate major public conversations around the issues that matter to them. They should make their case aggressively to secure public support that will, in turn, pressure elected politicians to make the right choices.
The growth of the web makes this prospect seriously viable for virtually any organisation for the first time. For example, they can use opinion research to work out exactly which audiences are most enthusiastic about their cause, use microtargeted social media advertising to grow their campaign base, and then create an online platform that helps people to air their views. And the success they achieve can then be marketed back into the mainstream media. Campaigns along these lines are developing widely in the US and should come to prominence in the UK.
Secondly, businesses (and other organisations) need to come to an agreement with the government – and realistically the media and the public – over greater transparency. A statutory register for lobbyists now looks inevitable. Those engaged in communications and public affairs should ensure this is targeted squarely at those who seek to affect decision-making through direct contact with government and Parliament, leaving the campaign and PR world encouraged to operate without interference.
Many that operate in public affairs may initially be worried about replacing their quiet approach with one that is above the line and direct. However, they will find not only that operating in full public view removes virtually all the discomfort surrounding lobbying, but that they are also more likely to achieve what they want in policy terms. No politician with a brain is going to ignore campaigns that tap into the public mood successfully, and many will welcome the opportunity to go along with something that looks popular.
James Frayne is a communications adviser and a former director of communications in government.