On message: what is ethical public affairs?

In partnership with Public Affairs Co-operative.

Neil Cuthbert of Public Affairs Co-operative. Picture: Julie Bull
Neil Cuthbert of Public Affairs Co-operative. Picture: Julie Bull

In an industry hampered by a lack of openness and transparency, Edinburgh-based Public Affairs Co-operative is on a mission to change the public perception. Big corporations, dodgy donations and a lack of ethics have all played their part in giving lobbying a bad name.

Director Neil Cuthbert hopes that by adhering to the highest industry standards, encouraging clients to lay their cards on the table, and with the Lobbying (Scotland) Act in place, Scotland will develop a culture of ethical public affairs.

Sign up to our Politics newsletter

Sign up to our Politics newsletter

What actually is public affairs?

Public affairs is about influencing the decisions of government at all levels, including local government.

It can take different forms – influencing legislation or regulatory decision-making, for example.

The focus is very much on what MPs, MSPs and other elected representatives do, but it is a lot broader than that. It’s about informing the public policy debate and about ensuring that decision-makers and the public at large better understand what the background is and why particular points of view or actions should be considered.

What is the public perception of lobbying?

The public perception can be quite negative and I think that’s really one of the big challenges for the industry.

Lobbying is seen as a pejorative word by many, but it’s really just about explaining why you think a particular course of action should be taken and justifying that through the force of your arguments, supported by documentary evidence.

What grates with the public is the so-called “revolving door” in politics. You get ministers, MPs who have been in government and maybe had responsibility for a certain industry, who leave parliament and perhaps join a public affairs or lobbying company. All of a sudden they are working in that field, having been the minister for that area.

It’s also linked into the growing distrust of politics, with issues like the expenses scandal and stories about politicians’ personal lives. There is a perception that they are not in politics for the right reasons – yet the vast majority of politicians work really hard for their constituents and genuinely want to change things for the better.

What is being done to change that negative perception?

The government and parliament have tried various things over the years, most recently establishing the Register of Consultant Lobbyists, to improve the perception, but that’s still very much a work in progress.

Mostly the public has a fairly negative view and it’s up to people who are working in the public affairs industry to challenge that view.

Where does Public Affairs Co-operative come into it?

We formed the company in 2013 because we thought there was a gap in the market which we are calling “ethical public affairs”. Some people challenge the concept of “ethical public affairs” because of that negative view of “lobbying” – but public affairs is a profession and it is perfectly possible to adopt high professional standards.

We were very clear that we wanted to have high standards of transparency and openness about what we do and who we work for and operate as a responsible business.

There have been moves by government to have registers of lobbyists and Public Affairs Co-op has been very supportive of that.

We are also very keen to set and uphold industry standards. I’m a member of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) which is leading a push for industry standards that are set by the industries themselves.

There are some public concerns – and in some cases those are legitimate concerns – but we are very upfront about confronting those issues and we try to make it clear to people that Public Affairs Co-operative offers a different kind of business.

What is the importance of having a co-operative structure?

I was always interested in co-operatives as a business model and the idea that all those working for a business are rewarded to the same extent.

We’re actually a workers’ co-operative. There are no shareholders and everybody who is a director of the business has the same say over how it’s run.

Co-ops are often referred to as the “halo” brand and people associate them with ethical behaviour.

How would you define “ethical public affairs”?

When you consider yourself an ethical business, what you have to do is look for the highest standards of business practice in the area you are working in.

Seek out those standards and apply them rigorously to what you do – how to conduct your business day to day, but also the way your business is managed.

How do you ensure your clients are also running responsible businesses?

Look at other industries like ethical investment. They might take the view that they wouldn’t invest in things like arms or tobacco manufacturing.

They wouldn’t invest in things that cause physical harm or harm the health of people.

We take a similar approach in that we are choosy about who we work for. If we felt that a company or organisation wasn’t themselves behaving in an ethical way, we would take the decision not to work with them.

What remains to be done in order to change the perception of the industry?

Scotland is going to set up a register of lobbyists and I think there is quite a strong ethical framework for how the Scottish Parliament operates.

Is there more to be done? Yes, there is and it’s about looking at issues, how they develop and responding to them.

One of the things that came up in the context of the lobbying bill was electronic communications. Because technology is changing and the way people are taking decisions is changing, you can’t be complacent.

Scotland has to look at its ethical framework and make sure it’s fit for purpose in the times we live in.

Major events in 2016 have shown us very clearly that we live in highly unpredictable and fast-moving times and like all other industries, we have to react to that swiftly and effectively.

Co-operatives in Scotland

Scotland has a diverse co-operative sector with 564 businesses owned and run by their members.

Operating as a co-operative run 
by members with equal responsibility and influence is one solution to combating the growing feeling of powerlessness over business and the economy which people are experiencing as a result of organisations being controlled by institutional investors and shareholders.

Organisations like Co-operatives UK and Co-operative Development Scotland, run by Scottish Enterprise, offer support and advice for anyone looking to start a co-operative from scratch or to change the structure of an existing business.

A report published by Co-operatives 
UK found that 15,954 people are employed in Scottish co-operatives, which have a turnover of £3.3 billion, and it’s a sector that is continuing to gather pace.

Direct engagement and targeted media coverage

Public Affairs Co-operative has worked very closely over the last two years with forestry trade body Confor: promoting forestry and wood.

It has helped Confor – which represents 1,600 UK forestry and wood-using businesses, including 800-plus in Scotland – to build on a strong position by advising it on relations with government across the UK.

“Our approach has been to combine direct engagement with ministers, MSPs and MPs and other interest groups, with straightforward, evidence-based documents and targeted media coverage,” explains Neil Cuthbert.

“You can’t be successful by delivering a strong public affairs strategy or positive public relations and media – you need both.”

In Scotland, the emphasis has been on the economic importance of forestry and timber, a £1 billion industry which employs more than 25,000 people. “It’s about repeating simple messages and big numbers which really resonate across Scotland,” according to Cuthbert.

“We have also arranged visits to forestry businesses, including sawmills, so MSPs can see the modern face of the industry at close hand.”

At Westminster, Public Affairs Co-op organises regular meetings of the all-party parliamentary group on forestry on behalf of Confor, turning it into a discussion forum on subjects including Brexit and flooding.

A wide range of other interest groups join the discussions, including the Woodland Trust, Royal Forestry Society, Scottish Land & Estates and CLA (Country Land and Business Association), as well as major forestry businesses which are Confor members.

“It is important and very helpful to hear from all sides on these big issues and understand where different groups are coming from,” says Cuthbert.

“We have held party conference fringe events with the Woodland Trust and CLA and understand the importance of finding common ground and offering solutions to government, rather than setting up entrenched positions.

“While the Woodland Trust and Confor might look like they have very different perspectives, they are united in wanting to plant more trees and improve the UK’s tree cover from just 13 per cent, only around a third of the European average”.

Public Affairs Co-op has also organised very successful forestry events across the UK and produced high-quality documents – including a series of reports on the impact of Brexit, a Scottish election manifesto, plus reports on flooding and diversity in 2016 alone. It was also involved in the scripting and editing of a forestry video and animation this year.

“There is a lot of detailed work going on all the time in terms of engagement, but it is also vital to have compelling documents to share which explain your story simply and effectively,” says Cuthbert.

“Successful public affairs is about identifying clear public policy objectives and integrating your campaigning activities to achieve them.  

“Confor has always been a highly-regarded, successful trade body and its hard work is starting to pay real dividends.

“In Scotland we have the most pro-forestry administration since devolution with a strong commitment to achieving tree planting targets and reducing the administrative burden to make the planning process work better. In England the government target is to plant 11 million trees by 2020.  

“Confor members can see the organisation’s agenda has been picked up by politicians north and south of the border and how it is now driving forestry policy across the UK.”

This article appears in the WINTER 2016 edition of Vision Scotland. An online version can be read here. Further information about Vision Scotland here.