By Carys Davis
As President Trump makes moves to ‘drain the swamp‘ – attempting to fix an “entire corrupt Washington Establishment” – is it time to reclaim the ‘lobbyist’ label?
How many of us working in public affairs introduce ourselves as a ‘lobbyist’ when asked what we do for a living? I’m betting very few of us, with most favouring ‘government relations’ – which underestimates the variety of the audiences we work with – or ‘public affairs’ – which to the uninitiated sounds a little like we work in customer services.
The reluctance to use the term – the etymology of which is disputed between the UK and the US, but either way describes a would-be influencer lurking in a foyer of some type – is perhaps understandable. The ‘cash for questions‘ scandal when I was growing up (with every intention of becoming a sports commentator or an Egyptologist) left a poor first impression of lobbying as a career option.
More recently, there’s been the negative press around Owen Smith’s former job as a pharmaceuticals lobbyist, and of course ongoing stings to ensnare various politicians into agreeing to influence for a fee (none of which ever involve actual lobbyists!) Could Westminster operate without a ‘revolving door’ of parliamentarians, party staff and researchers into and out of the lobbying profession? Could MPs speak credibly on complicated issues without the help of the likes of us? We could discuss these matters for days, but what I’m interested in this time is actually the semantics – how we label ourselves and our profession.
Because whether you think Trump’s reforms are enough to inject better ethics into the US system, or whether you think he’s in fact weakened its regulation, perhaps we can all agree that his swampy rhetoric is wildly unhelpful. For those of us doing the right thing – signed up to the UK’s Lobbying Register, abiding by the CIPR (or APPC or PRCA) Code of Conduct, being clear and transparent about our client lists – a discourse around our profession that treats us as murky, shifty operators is damaging and disheartening.
So, how to fight back? It would be a lazy distinction to make between ‘right/good’ and ‘wrong/bad’ lobbying, to suggest that good-cause lobbyists are angels and the rest are the swamp dwellers. Would I take on Priti Patel’s former client, British American Tobacco? Hell no (see Richard Evans’ thought-provoking article on that subject here), but the majority of our clients don’t elicit strong personal beliefs. Pointing towards worthy, passionate, underpaid charity lobbyists in an attempt to counteract ‘the swamp’ isn’t a sensible way to bisect and present our profession, when most of our work won’t fall into either category. If we must label lobbying, then ‘right or good’ should simply mean open, honest, transparent and considered.
If we do it this way, and I’m convinced that the majority of us do, there is nothing to be ashamed of in identifying as a lobbyist, despite the best efforts of the US President or the UK media to label us as the bad guys. So much so that I’ve decided that 2017’s the year to reclaim the job title and start using it down the pub. Maybe even on first dates. Because there’s nothing inherently wrong with being a lobbyist, and I certainly don’t feel like I belong in Trump’s so-called swamp.
Carys Davis MCIPR is owner/director of The Other Place Public Affairs Ltd specialising in public affairs strategy and bespoke training for those giving evidence to Select Committee hearings – particularly for high-profile, media-intense appearances.
Prior to setting up the company in 2016, she ran the Financial Conduct Authority’s public affairs team, and cross-communications teams in the third sector. She has also worked abroad in the Republic of Maldives as political consultant to Mohammed Nasheed, leader of the Maldivian Democratic Party.
Contact Carys at email@example.com
Image courtesy of flickr user chuck coker