Plain and simple – putting lobbying in the firing line?

Lobbying

Over the last couple of months there has been an increasingly heated debate about a proposed move to plain packaging for cigarettes in the UK which has, aside from the health policy concern, brought the issue of lobbying into the firing line.

As early as January this year, Philip Morris International (PMI) is reported to have conveyed its concerns about this move to the UK government. At that time, it was reported that the government was planning to “wait until it has seen more evidence from Australia, where plain packets were introduced in December last year in an effort to cut smoking”.

At the start of June there followed reports that PMI had started a so-called “stealth marketing campaign” targeting smokers with pack inserts outlining how they could mobilise to form a grassroots campaign against the move towards plain packaging.

In-pack information drives customers to the Know More site which segments messaging to separately target adult smokers and retailers. In the retailers section, the site states: “Overreaching, costly Government regulations hurt Britain’s small-business owners and the UK economy. Join with other retailers from across the country who feel the same way you do. Understanding Government proposals and how they affect you is the first step to joining the conversation and making your voice heard.” While in the adult smokers section it calls on smokers to “join our community and speak out” against the “latest stream of proposals targeting smokers” namely, moves towards plain packaging.

The health risks of smoking aside, purely from a lobbying perspective, the question arises as to why this campaign generated such outrage?

Lobbying and advocacy campaigns, across all areas of business, have long utilised the process of grassroots campaigning – granted, some more effectively than others – but always with a focus on those individuals and groups impacted by policy or regulation being those best placed to speak either for or against the issue.

In making a move to mobilise smokers, this campaign by PMI did the same – nothing new here. I can’t help but wonder if the outrage was more about the fact that the tobacco industry “got there first” and, for the first time I can recall in the UK market, sought to “hit back” publicly and via customers to increasingly challenging market conditions.

Similarly, last weekend’s focus on Lynton Crosby’s work for PMI refers to a “sophisticated lobbying campaign that targeted key politicians and civil servants” refers to basic stakeholder mapping – a process by which key decision-makers involved in an area are “mapped” including an outline of previous policy positions adopted, public statements on the issue, press releases on the topic, media interviews/comments that contain key messages etc. Again, nothing new (or indeed particularly sophisticated) about this.

To be honest, as a public affairs practitioner I was surprised to see such credit for innovation and sophistication being attributed to what is, essentially, “public affairs 101”. There is nothing underhand about either grassroots mobilisation or stakeholder mapping – these are the “bread and butter” tools of the legitimate and professional practice of modern public affairs.

Knowing where “the players” (or to be more academic about it, the “stakeholders”) stand on issues is vital. Using information that is already on the public record is just good research and is a no-brainer when structuring a lobbying campaign. And more than that, mobilising those most affected by issues is at the heart of advocacy and the democratic process.

There are certainly questions, for any practitioner, as to the appropriateness of maintaining a client base where there is clear potential for conflicted interests (as has been widely alleged of Lynton Crosby’s work although such claims cannot be substantiated in the absence of a register of clients), And ultimately, this is where the proposed register of lobbyists can make a real difference in increasing transparency around professional practice and instil a sense of trust in public affairs.

Let me be very clear the issue of conflict of interest is one which I, both personally and professionally, feel very strongly about. In my view, dubious and unprofessional practice cannot be tolerated. While we have had voluntary codes of conduct so far, proposed legislation on the regulation of lobbyists in Ireland is a welcome development and one which I have publicly supported in my own work and on behalf of clients.

The “old boys network” that has existed in Ireland around lobbying and public affairs is not acceptable – it never was, but it was tolerated. The new generation of public affairs specialists, of which I am proud to count myself as one, does not operate in this way. We recognise that the historical approach has led to reputational damage for Ireland with us portrayed as a nation that accepts corruption and “back-handers” and is not appropriate on any stage, national or international.

However, we also need to be very clear that in today’s business world, where government policy, regulation and international and European bodies are impacting on national business practice, market access and wider corporate issues public affairs has a vital role to play.

The most recent reports on the value and benefit of professionalised public affairs (for example, via Watson Helsby and McKinsey and Company) show that public affairs is vital to effective business practice with the statement – “Government is more likely to affect companies’ economic outlines than any other set of stakeholders except customers

In this context it is essential that we not “throw the baby out with the bathwater” and lose sight that, done well and within appropriate professional parameters, public affairs has a unique value-add to any business.

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About frimframworld

Total coffee fan, dedicated foodie & news hound. Strategic PR & political comms as a day job. All comments my own - blogging in a personal capacity only.

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