Reading headlines about ICAC and Eddie Obeid might have you thinking successful lobbying is mostly graft with some slippery footwork thrown in. But Alistair Nicholas, senior adviser in the government relations and public affairs practice of Weber Shandwick Australia, says there’s quite a bit more to it.
Lobbying, in the popular imagination, is a profession made up of ex-politicians and former political staffers who act, at best, as door-openers to current politicians and their staffers. In its worst permutation the perception is that these former politicians and staffers are bagmen to those in power. But the real day-to-day picture is a bit more complex.
Lobbyists thrive on corruption and line politicians’ pockets, right?
Who can blame the Australian public for this perspective given the number of high-profile cases of political corruption involving such crass forms of influencing? Lobbyists’ making large donations to political parties and providing expensive gifts to politicians have not helped paint a positive picture of the craft of presenting a point of view.
But the truth of the lobbyist’s work is very far away from the activities that appeal to that basest of instincts — greed. Although the likes of disgraced NSW politician Eddie Obeid might have thought that the “art of politics is to turn influence into affluence” (to borrow from the American poet and humourist Philander Chase Johnson) most politicians are not seeking to line their own pockets. And most lobbyists are not engaged in facilitating the corruption of those in office. Nor are they involved in quid pro quo negotiations or blackmailing of politicians — misconceptions created by popular American TV dramas like Scandal and House of Cards. Bribery, blackmail and phoney negotiations with politicians might make for good television, but they are very far away from the reality of professional lobbying.
Is lobbying regulated in any way?
The Commonwealth and all the state governments require lobbyists and their clients to be listed on their respective lobbyist registers. The registers have to be updated both quarterly and every time a new client is acquired. And, of course, we, like everyone else, are subject to national and state laws regarding graft and corruption. For many of the large, international public affairs and lobbying firms that operate in Australia, such as my employer, a further disincentive for unethical and illegal lobbying behaviour exists in the form of the United States’ Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). A US-incorporated entity found to have breached that piece of legislation in any way, even in far away Australia, could incur fines and even serious prison time in the United States. Consider that News Corporation is currently under investigation for possible breaches of the FCPA in relation to the activities of its subsidiaries in the phone-hacking scandal in the UK. In the case of the FCPA, the arm of the law is indeed long and to be feared.
Are lobbyists mostly past-it political hacks?
It’s an odd question for me as I used to be a federal Coalition staffer, but no, it is not necessary. In fact, the majority of people engaged in lobbying are sophisticated professionals, rather than has-been politicians and past party apparatchiks. Lobbyists are usually trained in law, economics or political science. And they usually have spent the early parts of their careers as journalists, policy analysts, political advisers or bureaucratic boffins. A good government relations firm will comprise people whose skills and experience bring together a number of these backgrounds. These people know how things get done in government and they know how to influence changes as policies or legislation flow through the system.
How do you go about lobbying, anyway?
Successful lobbying campaigns are about much more than knocking on a politician’s door. That is part of it, but it’s the smallest part. A good lobbyist needs to understand the policy issues and explain why a policy or piece of legislation needs to be changed. A more sophisticated lobbyist also engages independent advocates such as academics and other experts to put forward their client’s or company’s case. And the best lobbyists will engage the media in their cause, particularly the opinion page writers. These days we also leverage social media channels like Twitter and Facebook to obtain grassroots support for campaigns.
Take me through a typical lobbying campaign.
Understand the issue — Research the background to the issue to understand the arguments for and against a particular perspective.
Messaging and outreach strategy — Based on the understanding of the issue, work with the client to develop their messaging and outreach strategy. Sometimes, especially for complex issues that require a “long-game plan”, the strategy might require much more than cruising the corridors of power at Parliament House or a government department.
Map the stakeholders — Identify which politicians, government departments and bureaucrats are key to a policy or legislative change and find out where they stand on the issue. This is done by reading speeches and articles they may have written but also by “intelligence gathering”, by asking people who may know them what they know about the stakeholder’s position on the issue.
Influence the influencers — Identify non-stakeholders who might be able to influence the decision-makers. These might be backbenchers, parliamentary committee members, academics and media commentators. We would usually map them in terms of degrees of separation from the decision-makers, sway they might have over the decision-makers, and stance on the matter at issue.
Climb the hill programs — Take the clients to meet with politicians and bureaucrats you are seeking to influence, as well as with influencers such as backbenchers or parliamentary staff, in Parliament House to explain the client’s position on the policy or legislation.
Influencer outreach — Where necessary, design programs to get the influencers engaged and, hopefully, to support the client’s program. This might mean having academics and commentators pen opinion pieces for the media and speak on relevant TV and radio programs, or, it might mean holding seminars on the subject and inviting key stakeholders and media to attend.
How long does it take?
Positive outcomes are rarely achieved in a short period of time for complex issues. Programs seeking to change mindsets and policies can take months and even years. Occasionally progress is piecemeal. One program this author worked on took eight years before the desired outcome was finally achieved.
What kind of lobbying campaign gets results?
In actual fact the success or failure of a lobbying campaign doesn’t depend on the industry the issue affects. What’s critically important in achieving success is the quality of the argument and the strategy to demonstrate broader community support for a particular perspective.
The most successful lobbying campaigns — such as the one for seat belts in cars or the one by a drug company to make a vaccine that protects women against cervical cancer affordable and accessible — have been based in highly effective, strategic public affairs campaigns. This approach has and will always fare better than one that calls in political favours.