Four lessons from lobbying scandals

Recent ‘lobbying scandals’ have been the trigger points for bringing forward legislative measures in the UK and Scottish Parliaments. Frustratingly, I and many colleagues in Scotland get incensed for two reasons: the scandals rarely include professional lobbyists and the legislative proposals rarely hit the mark.

However, we can’t rest our indignation on the laurels of professional practice. For all the time there is a ‘celebrity’ scandal in London, we nod knowingly that it doesn’t happen here. Well, maybe not on the scale that attracts the Bureau of Investigative Journalists, but unethical practice does happen: it fuels the coffee break in many an association meeting.

With more and more comms people recognising that their stakeholder engagement is clearly stretching into influencing policy and actions, lobbying is not just the preserve of full-time public affairs specialists.

So what can we learn from the high profile lessons of recent times? Firstly, from the Fox/Werrity affair: be clear at all times who you represent. If Adam Werrity had an ounce of professional respect, he should have declared to civil servants and Dr Fox at an early stage that he was being paid by a client to represent them in matters related to defence. That would or should have sent alarm bells ringing early on. We can but suppose, he never did.

Secondly, the “taxis for hire” sting on a number of former Labour Cabinet ministers and Tory MPs highlighted how the revolving door of an ‘in and out of office’ politician thinks it’s such an easy ride to lobbying gold. Stephen Byers in particular got into hot bother by stating that he had already lobbied for cash as an MP for National Express and Tesco. Both the ministers for transport and business as well as the companies named, refuted Byers claims that he had acted on their behalf and/or had even met them. If only Byers had brought along a testimonial I hear you say. So, evidence your claims at all times – your word alone may not be good enough.

Similarly, the ‘generals for hire‘ investigation rocked the cosy world of the top brass more accustomed to portraying scandal as something grubby politicos do. Here, la creme de la creme of the retired military were caught making all sorts of promises and suggestions of how to exploit their contacts/networks in the MOD to get commercial contracts. All of them conveniently forgot about the Civil Service Management Code (intended to jam the ‘revolving door’ more than lock it shut). Needless to say, but I’ll say it anyway: codes are like an overdraft limit. Freedom to utilise a facility within a pre-arranged agreement. However, the overdraft limit is a boundary not a target. If you have to read Codes in detail before acting, doesn’t that tell you something about your activity in the first place. Just because it is literally within the boundaries of a code, does not necessarily make it acceptable to wider public opinion. Choose your third party advocates wisely.

ImageLastly, the undercover work by the Bureau of Investigative Journalists exposed embarrassing practice and unethical conduct by the largest lobbying firm in the UK, Bell Pottinger Public Affairs. Whilst proficiency in search engine optimisation (or is it pessimisation if acting in reverse?) and bragging about your political contacts is not a crime in itself, suggesting that the Prime Minister is malleable to do your bidding in world trade discussions puts your ‘old pals act’ on to dodgy ground. Blatantly offering to amend Wikipedia to cleanse your client’s (or employer’s for that matter) reputation for commercial advantage is unethical. So what can we learn? When pitching for work, focus on what you know, not who you know. Only promise what you can deliver and always imagine you are being filmed for the next lobbying scandal!

This posting first appeared on the CIPR Scotland Blog in October 2013.