Practical Lobbying Advice

14 years, 8 months ago

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In an edited extract from their book Public Affairs in Practice, Stuart Thomson and Steve John share their thoughts on managing issues and building evidence to develop effective lobbying activity.



Issues management is not simply about the delivery of messages to political or media audiences. It is, instead, about understanding the issues, building and developing them and then presenting them in a way that will secure support for your cause or campaign.

This can present significant challenges as some issues may appear simply too difficult to ‘sell’ or too complicated to understand for anyone other than those completely specialist in the area. This is not the case. Public affairs consultants need to be able to work on a range of issues sometimes outside their immediate range of experience.

At such times it is important that they rely on their public affairs expertise and work their way through the problem. Of course, those employed ‘in-house’ will be able to hone their skills and expertise and become specialists whereas many of those involved in consultancy may be more generalist.

The Heart Of The Issue

It is not uncommon to be approached by a client, be they internal or external, with an issue that they know to be of concern but whose understanding ends there. It is the role of those involved in public affairs to help them explore the issue in more detail, decide what outcome they seek and then assist in framing the argument.

Under these circumstances a golden rule is to be realistic. It can be at this early stage that expectations are built to such an extent that the campaign is always doomed to failure because they are not met. It is not usual to hear:

• "We’ll get the government to drop this bill."
• "I know the adviser in Number 10 and he will make sure the government drops this idea."
• "This policy is going to cost us so much money, we need the government to see sense."

Be prepared to challenge those who come to you with a ‘reality check’ about what is, and is not, achievable. It does not matter whether you work in-house or for a consultancy, there is no easier way to disappoint and lose a client or a supporter than to over-promise.

However, before you can work out what is realistic to expect, you need to be able to understand the issue and have worked out your plan of action, complete with aims. To be able to do this fully you need to research the issue. This means really trying to get to grips with the matter and reading round it. Often the best way to do this is to talk to others.

For those in-house, identify and talk to relevant people in the organization; for consultants, talk to immediate colleagues. Often, similar problems may have been encountered in the past and their expertise can help guide you. Never be too proud to talk to others and never believe that you alone have all the answers. Ideas can and should come from all levels in a team or organization and elements of an issue that you do not understand, others may.

Understanding The Problem

Once you begin to understand the issue, you need to understand the problem – what is it that needs to be solved through lobbying and communications activity? The preferred option is always to offer a solution to the problem and if you can consider this towards the start of the process then you increase your chances of finding that solution.

To be able to offer a solution you have to gain an insight into how your intended audience, normally the government, will react. You can only know this by understanding the position being adopted by the government and by key individuals, and how your issue fits into the government’s overall agenda. For instance, if a company wanted to argue for the abolition of the minimum wage, how would the current Labour Government react? – ‘badly’ would be an understatement, but how do you know this? The answer is to research the background to the issue with government:

• Has government issued any statements?
• What did these statements say?
• Has the prime minister or other senior minister spoken or made a speech on the issue?
• Has it been the subject of a parliamentary debate, as this would have included a ministerial statement on the matter?
• Did the party say anything about this issue in its last manifesto?
• Has the minister said anything in the press?

Be prepared to speak to those making the policy, eg the bill team for a parliamentary bill, to get an understanding of where they are coming from and the pressures they face. The members of a bill team are really the people to speak to on timings, when you can expect amendments to be published and so on. Civil servants should always be a point of contact when you are trying to learn more.

Look to utilize original source materials for the policy. You need to know where the policy has come from if you are to impact on it in any substantive way. Be prepared to look at the original report, eg a think tank report, or the Green or White paper. This approach can often provide a good list of those to involve in your campaign – did they contribute to the original paper, can you gain an understanding of where they are coming from their initial submission to a Green Paper.

This is especially important when trying to know more about those who may oppose you – only by looking at their position can you hope to be able to argue against them. Alternatively, this method can also help to identify potential allies for a campaign; you may already have supporters you can involve. Do not forget that many of these resources are available online and if they are not on a government website then they could be on the organization’s own website.

Government Concerns

Once you understand the government’s position, you need to ask yourself the questions that government will ask. This will be all important if you are to succeed. If you have not thought about the government’s needs and concerns then your chances of success are limited. Typical government concerns may be:

• timings;
• impact on the economy;
• cost implications;
• the popularity of your issue;
• clashes with the policies between departments.

After this research, you now know what the government’s position is and can anticipate how it will react to your issue. You will also know the counter arguments you will face and have details of potential supporters. Again those involved in public affairs need to understand the policy process to advise on the framing of the arguments with government. They may vary if you are getting involved during a Green Paper but if the government has already outlined its preferred option in a White Paper then you need to frame your argument in a different manner.

We have used the example of a government above but the basic procedures remain the same whether you are lobbying a regulator, an opposition party, a business group or an NGO. So overall:

• understand your issue;
• research the background;
• devise a solution;
• know where the issue is in the policymaking process;
• understand the position of those you are lobbying;
• ask yourself the questions that others will ask and be able to answer them;
• identify opponents and allies. 

Once you have this information you are in a position to frame the argument in the briefing paper.

Building The Evidence

Be prepared to know that your word may not be enough. Especially if you are arguing from a corporate position then you will hear cries of, "you would say that, wouldn’t you?" Many may believe that you are simply trying to defend your own commercial position and that you only have your own best interests at heart.

When faced with this reaction you need to be able to provide evidence and also be able to show either that you are not the only ones taking this position, or that the impact of the policy will extend far beyond your own company.

You may well require some independent evidence. This can come from a number of sources:

• experts in the field prepared to extol the virtues of your position and back up your argument;
• already existing academic reports;
• press reports and comments printed elsewhere

Yet, again, these may be insufficient. In many cases you should look to develop your arguments and give additional gravitas by working alongside an independent third party organization, such as a:

• think tank;
• economic consultancy;
• business school;
• academic department/specialist researcher;
• polling organization

When selecting your preferred partner in this work then you need to take note of the following considerations:

• Does the partner reflect your own values? The partner should not clash with the principles of your organization, ie their aims or position being completely contradictory to your own.
• The partner should not damage your own reputation – check the background to the partner to ensure that they have not done work in the past that could cause you embarrassment or that may become more of a story than your own research.
• The partner should be recognized as a thought leader – it should be led by those with intellect and political understanding who have a good standing.
• The partner should be able to help you develop your ideas and forward them to appropriate audiences.
• Check the track record of the proposed partner 

At the end of the day, you will be working with a partner organization with the aim of providing independent verification for your position. Be sure to:

• get the brief right – when designing the research be sure to discuss your aims and objections and ensure that it is intellectually rigorous;
• be clear in the type of report you expect the partner to produce – its format, scope etc;
• be clear from the outset if the partner is in a position to help you deliver the report to your audiences;
• check on the costs – there will be budget implications for the work;
• understand if their approach resonates with the audience you are looking to influence.


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The Author

Stuart Thomson

Stuart Thomson (Dr) is senior public affairs adviser at Bircham Dyson Bell, the law firm and parliamentary agency.

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Steve John

Steve John (Dr) is director of government affairs, PepsiCo UK and Ireland.

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