(Speech by Hall PR director, Don Hall – Dublin, September 2017)
Has lobbying become the modern-day pursuit of the snake oil salesman? Has the manner in which some practice the art become a fast-track method of besmirching reputations…those of the lobbyist, of the politician who has been lobbied, and of the client whose interest the lobbyist was engaged to further? Judging by some recent, high profile occurrences, the answer to both questions would appear to be a definite ‘yes’.
The task of ‘bending a politician’s ear’ is one that’s as old as Government itself. It’s a pursuit that the Irish engage in, with relish…something that is natural to us. For generations, it has been carried out on the roadside after Sunday mass…practised at funerals and at football and hurling matches…over pints in the local pub and in the sanctuary of a politician’s private clinic.
Mindful that the very finest form of lobbying is carried out in silence – with a nod and a whisper and a shake of the hand – one can still be sure that the picture painted above continues unabated, unrestricted by regulations introduced to protect politicians from the infection that lobbying can sometimes visit upon them.
It was over the last decades that lobbying began to change in Ireland. Like a cavalry charge, professional lobbying came galloping over the hill, flag waving and bugle blaring.
For those multi-nationals accustomed to having highly paid lobbyists pushing their agendas in Washington, Brussels and the like, local help was at hand. For native enterprises that believed themselves impotent in the matter – and were willing to pay hefty fees for the service – the emergence of clean-cut, mohair-suited executives who would boast of ‘being in the know’ became something of a Godsend.
Driving this change was a community of over-the-hill politicians, civil servants on the early retirement trail, political party apparatchiks, failed Ministerial advisors and programme managers, and journalists abandoning their craft in pursuit of the richer pickings lobbying promised. Fanning the (often mistaken) belief that they had influence in the corridors of power, lobbying was an escape route to a new career whereby they could bolster their earnings by escorting fee-rich clients through some ‘mystical’ process that, in truth, they (clients) might be better advised to undertake for themselves.
Dressed in all its finery and perfumed with an alluring aroma of intrigue, the supposed power to shape the mind of Ministers and influence political decision-making is now being promoted as a marketable service that can be hired if one only had the budget to pay for it! Like the Holy Grail, politicians became portrayed as something akin to a community of untouchables – distant people whose minds, whose intelligence, whose willpower were housed in a secure place to which lobbyists alone have the key.
That the majority of TDs and Senators are public people who can be approached openly, easily and in so many different ways is something that….sshhh…we must be careful not to mention!
Lobbying, as it is popularly known, is, in one respect, a wholly necessary and worthy undertaking. Politicians, even the most senior, Government officials and local representatives cannot keep themselves up-to-the-minute on every trend, development, nuance or consequence peculiar to the life and activities of an organisation – whether it be a business or professional body, trade union or representative organisation, charitable or voluntary undertaking, a pressure group or otherwise. Fact of life!
Indeed, it could be argued that politicians and officials are somewhat errant when it comes to equipping themselves with research and knowledge that they ought to have in order to carry out their duties more effectively, and that those [lobbyists] who set about filling their knowledge void may well be doing a monumental favour for society as a whole.
Therefore, those who have information to impart should do so, safe in the knowledge that they are engaging in a communications process. No more and no less than a church newsletter, the simple and ethical transfer of information from one to another is an activity that surely poses no threat to the welfare of the State.
However, it is at the point where ‘communication’ morphs into ‘persuasion’ that the problem occurs; when ‘for your information’ becomes ‘urging and encouragement’ as one determines to alter a political course…or seek benefit or preference…or forestall or amend legislation…or wreak change to a particular policy.
Horrendous in this context would be efforts to induce or otherwise reward those who may be the targets of a lobby. As observers of the Irish scene will know, this is a Rubicon that has already been crossed. Lobbying has become a dirty word, a sullied trade besmirched by the actions of some, infamous for having suffered the ‘hard time’ consequence that their love of the ‘brown envelope’ method of communications attracted.
Not unreasonably, this underhand (backhand?) approach to political arm-twisting encouraged legislators to introduce regulations governing lobbying and lobbyists, and all who practise the gentle art of political persuasion.
Introduced in the interests of what is euphemistically called ‘transparency’, those engaged in lobbying must now, under law, furnish a comprehensive report to a State body – SIPO, the Standards In Public Office Commission – setting out full details of who it was that was lobbied, the purpose of the lobby, etc., etc.
Like a traffic light, politicians now regard lobbyists as people to be approached with caution. They know that contact with a lobbyist, and the purpose of it, must be registered publicly, in open view, and liable to be queried in parliamentary debates, raised (or questioned) in media reports or broadcast via social media. This has led to a tightening of the situation in relation to lobbying activity generally, and should serve as a warning to those who might engage in it without care to consequence.
As observers of the lobbyists’ trade, we in Hall PR have chosen not to offer ourselves as professional lobbyists – despite the fact that we have been closer to the political process than many who profess to be experts in the field. Noting that politicians’ minds are seldom for turning on important issues, and a conviction that lobbying really doesn’t work, we stick rigidly to the belief that the process of political engagement should never be undertaken for commercial gain, nor should one ever allow oneself to be commissioned under such terms.
While we thoroughly enjoy political communications – and have gained a privileged insight into the political process – we do not promote ourselves as ‘lobbyists’ nor do we conduct what might be termed ‘lobbying activity’ for commercial reward.
Some say we’re silly…the more enlightened say we’re shrewd! Indeed, the last to comment on the matter, a former Government minister, said: ‘the day you guys start talking to me for fees will be the day I’ll stop talking to you for fun’.
Indeed, so anxious have politicians become to put distance between themselves and those who practise the dark art, more than a few lobbyists have had shadows cast over their own reputations as those within the body politic rush to cleanse themselves of the very suggestion that they would ever engage with such people. Dog dirt and shoes come to mind.
Our advice is this: Become involved with politicians and engage with the political process by all means…but do so on a strictly voluntary basis, without expectation of fee or favour. Then will you be stimulated, motivated, educated and frustrated in almost equal measure, and come away mentally rewarded in ways you could not imagine. Become involved in politics for money or material reward and you will come away branded with the mark of being a political hack.
But not to worry…should that day come, you need have no concern! Around the corner will be a career working for some lobbyist who will offer you to clients, charging out your time in fee amounts that only a heart surgeon could justify.
Then, on the treadmill of your own good reputation and the friendships you have formed, will you be expected to demonstrate your political pedigree, justify your credentials, and pony up proof of your performance – appointments with politicians, their programme managers and advisors; letters and copies of correspondence; meetings, briefings and dining dates; acceptances, refusals and excuses; any scrap your boss can report to clients as evidence of your effort.
As one wit noted: If politics is the art of the possible, then lobbying must surely be the art of the impossible!