Is is time to abandon lobbying and target voters directly?

Today’s CITYA.M. carries an op-ed by communications consultant James Frayne. He argues that “It’s time for business to abandon lobbying and target voters directly”.

The problem I’ve got with his argument is that actually that’s exactly what a lot of effective lobbying already does. When Oxfam was successfully campaigning for the global Arms Trade Treaty it did so both publicly by creating a coalition of supporters and discretely by conversations with the key global players.

Frayne claims:

“Lobbying works as it does not because it suits businesses, but because it suits the way Westminster and Whitehall operate. Most senior executives are happy to discuss problems with proposed new taxes and regulations with practically everyone they meet. Pressure for discretion comes from politicians and their advisers, who make it clear they do not want to face public pressure from businesses that may turn into negative media coverage.”

In my experience that’s more true of Whitehall than it is of Westminster.

Sometimes lobbying might need to be done ‘discretely’ for the benefit of both those lobbying and those being lobbied. But discrete doesn’t mean secret. It means that everything should still be appropriately registered and recorded, you just don’t go out of your way to publicise it further.

However, the reality is that in most cases none of the parties involved benefit from this or need this and usually a more transparent approach is far more effective.

Even Frayne admits this discrete approach is less effective when he goes on to say:

“Ahead of every Budget, there always seems to be a group of businesspeople that believe their discreet, “constructive” approach to public affairs will have secured them a good deal from government. Every year this group of people ends up disappointed.”

There was nothing discrete about the way Greggs successfully lobbied against George Osbourne’s ill-thought out pasty tax.

Frayne is also wrong to say that:

“most politicians only respond to pressure”

In fact, contrary to popular belief, most politicians are actually trying to do the right thing that they believe will be in the best interests of the country. One of the many factors that they will take into account is public and stakeholder pressure.

Where I do start to agree with Frayne is when he says:

“First, and most importantly, businesses that want to influence decision-making within government or party policy formulation should replace lobbyists with campaigners to generate major public conversations around the issues that matter to them. They should make their case aggressively to secure public support that will, in turn, pressure elected politicians to make the right choices.”

However, his mistake is in believing that this is a ‘new’ approach. Rather he describes exactly what many lobbyists have been doing for many years. I ran a successful lobbying campaign in the late 90s which consisted mainly of persuading the owners of local businesses to write to their local MPs and visit them at their surgeries. All of the approaches were carefully targeted. From memory I think we had one telephone conversation with a civil servant and one brief conversation with a minister (which was actually accidentally bumping into him at a reception, rather than a meeting). The changes we wanted in the legislation happened.

Where Frayne actually nails it is when he says:

“The growth of the web makes this prospect seriously viable for virtually any organisation for the first time. For example, they can use opinion research to work out exactly which audiences are most enthusiastic about their cause, use micro-targeted social media advertising to grow their campaign base, and then create an online platform that helps people to air their views. And the success they achieve can then be marketed back into the mainstream media. Campaigns along these lines are developing widely in the US and should come to prominence in the UK.”

This was the topic of one of my chapters in last year’s best-selling Share This: The Social Media Handbook for PR Professionals. All of these, and more, are techniques I explain in the chapter on Modernising Public Affairs for the Digital Age.

However, it’s a mistake to think that digital public affairs and online campaigning and advocacy are the whole solution. The best way many public affairs professionals can use digital and social media is to do many of their traditional tactics more effectively. It’s another way of doing research. It’s another way of interacting with opinion formers, politicians, researchers, staffers, journalists and other stakeholders. It’s another way of doing media relations. And in each case the “another way” is becoming increasingly important as the pendulum swings from the traditional to the new.

And it leaves out perhaps the most important way public affairs professionals can use the internet and that is content and search.

It’s impossible to be a truly effective lobbyist today without understanding how to integrate digital and social media into both the strategy and the day-to-day activity.

One of my most popular courses is on digital public affairs and social media which I’ve delivered to several in-house public affairs professionals and to public affairs consultancies in the UK, Europe, Middle East and Central Asia.