Let’s start with some honesty: I have been a professional lobbyist. I wasn’t very good at it (of which more later), and getting made redundant was a sweet relief as I hated every solitary second of it, but I did it for 18 months. I stress that the firm I worked for we’re not only enthusiastic signatories to the APPC code, but were evangelists for it. They represented some clients I wasn’t that keen on but never, ever did anything that I could describe as shady. As someone who has dealt with public affairs companies when seeking sponsorship for a variety of events and projects, it is my opinion that this is true for the vast majority of the lobbying industry. I know some excellent people who work in the industry none of whom are – to my knowledge – evil. They are, like most people, trading the skills, knowledge and experience they have developed for a salary. As simple as that.
Still I wake up every morning thankful I’m no longer a lobbyist. Even on the worst day at my current job (and every job has its bad days).
Of course my former colleagues would argue that I am still a lobbyist. As a campaigner, it’s true that the majority of my work is spent trying to convince politicians of the rightness of my cause and act accordingly. As do the public affairs teams at all major charities and pressure groups, companies and trade organisations, think tanks and unions.
But for me personally, and forgive me for being crude, the difference between lobbyist and campaigner is like the difference between being a lover and being a prostitute. You’re doing exactly the same things, but with quite different motivations. In short, you mean it Maaan. I’ve discovered that for me to be able to fulfil my potential, I have to mean it.
In most public affairs companies, there are two types of people: the swans and the hamsters.
The swans are the directors and their entire role is about liaison. Never purposefully lunching alone, they keep up their links with the politicians they’ve known for years, with the clients they’re keeping onside, with the former clients they’re hoping to win back and the potential clients they’re hoping to win. They are known throughout the industry and they charge accordingly.
The hamsters are the account managers. They read and digest for the clients endless committee, think tank and pressure group reports. They listen to select committee hearings and attend APPG meetings diligently taking notes to be bundled up for weekly digests for the clients. They arrange meetings, create briefings and organise diaries. The reason I was not a great hamster, was that I found it a Herculean effort to read dry, dusty reports on matters I didn’t care about. I lost my ability to pay attention to detail on issues that didn’t matter (and my big picture strengths were rarely brought into play as a hamster). Other hamsters do this extraordinarily well though, and my two closest colleagues from my time as a lobbyist were two of the most professional and dedicated people it has been my pleasure to work with.
Lobbying isn’t clear cut. The image that exists ( and which lobbyist like Bell Pottinger’s Peter Bingle do everything to maintain) isn’t the whole picture. But it is an industry in need of sunshine. The APPC works pretty well for those who sign up to it. But until there’s a mandatory code covering everyone in the industry, and that should probably include Greenpeace and the Tax Payers Alliance, the worst sort of swan will continue to tarnish the best sort of hamster. In the end, despite the kicking and screaming of the old guard, regulation may well be good for the industry as a whole.