Influencing is not about cash for access anymore. Good lobbying is about three things: strategy, strategy, strategy.
When I first said this in a board meeting I had a full-on row the CEO who argued that I should be able to buy access to the Prime Minister.
I have found the need to reiterate the ‘no cash for access’ principle on numerous occasions since.
In one corporate job I was told to use the firm’s box at the National Theatre to entertain MPs and Special Advisors; for another I was told to entertain Select Committee members at expensive private dining rooms in top Westminster restaurants at a cost of £3000 a time for 10 dining places; in one agency it was cited that I should emulate the PR team who could buy access to top footballers with champagne and a box at the match for their clients.
More recently I tweeted out the same mantra – strategy not cash – when a member of the Government was exposed for telling corporate lobbyists to use his wife’s firm to influence government.
Only this week a Guardian article entitled ‘the most schmoozed councillor in politics’. The article details the deputy leader of Westminster Council who has had over 500 pieces of extravagant corporate entertainment over the past three years. I also heard of a SPAD who had recently had to leave a public affairs firm because he was under so much pressure to fix an inappropriate client dinner with a senior government figure.
It’s time to take stock. We need to learn lessons of the past and move on.
I started working in public affairs in 1996. Just before the Derek Draper scandal of 1998 which finished his career and damaged the public affairs industry in the UK. In those days life was very different, but some still operate as if we’re in that era.
Influential parliamentarians and government figures are usually sensitised to accusations of sleaze. So schmoozing or bribery in any form is old hat and bad form. If an MP or a government member sees you or your client because of the offer of a dinner or an opera ticket, beware. They’re probably not influential and if they are at the moment, they are unlikely to be for long.
At the Corporate Comms Shop we’re currently running a highly successful influencing programme for a client. The programme is successful not because of lunches or theatre tickets. Its success is because we’ve worked out how we can provide excellent value add information. We help MPs with Select Committee inquiries, debates, questions and so on. MPs then get noticed for their helpful interventions and are grateful that we can provide the value they need to make them stand out.
So not only do MPs take our briefings and our calls, but when we do brief them we don’t so much as buy them a coffee. In fact MPs buy the coffee for us.
Modern public affairs professionals have changed the transactional terms of the relationship between client and influencer. We think about how our clients can help MPs and government ministers, not how people in parliament and the executive can help us. We don’t need bribery to create access. Rather we create a position where influencers need the advice of our clients. In this way our clients real thought leadership for decision makers and influencers.
That’s a whole different mind set from the sleazy methodology which has dominated our industry in past. The new mindset is empowering to our profession and to our client base.
To be successful in the long term, modern public affairs consultants need to build their practice on a set of values where integrity and accountability is key. That is how we build a reputation both for ourselves and for our clients. Shady deals in the shadows of a Westminster restaurant simply don’t cut it any more. Public Affairs professionals need to practice accountability and transparency to build their reputation.
I noticed that in the recent select committee inquiry the Oxfam CEO said: ‘we will no longer allow reputation to come before accountability’. What a strange statement.
The foundation of reputation IS accountability. There is not a trade off between reputation and accountability. MPs, government officials, lobbyists and clients who are transparent and accountable will build a strong reputation which is sustainable. By contrast, if we try to build the tower on bribery of any sort, it will be exposed. And when it is, the tower will crash to the ground bringing down the lobbyist, the client and the influencers as it goes.