Magazine article Marketing

We'd like You to Say Yes, Minister

Magazine article Marketing

We'd like You to Say Yes, Minister

Article excerpt

The politics of persuasion are a delicate balance of tact and guile. Lobbyists in Parliament have it down to a fine art.

When Chief Secretary to the Treasury Michael Portillo recently likened political lobbyists to a sewage system he was being complimentary -- they have been described in far more graphic terms. They are, he said to an audience of lunching lobbyists at a Commons conference, "as necessary to the political process as a thoroughly efficient sewage system is to any city". He later softened the metaphor to "political lubricant" but the point had been made.

Lobbyists are feeling the glare of unwelcome attention caused by a recent scandal, which involved the alleged overpromising of contact with senior officials and claimed access to confidential information. The incident has prompted calls for restriction and regulation of lobbyists' possibly skullduggerous activities.

No such charges have been made against marketing's most vocal lobby, the Brand Producers and Brand Owners Group, but it has been criticised for being too slow, too short-termist and for asking too much. According to a lawyer who specialises in trademark law and who heard the Brand Owners Group present its demands, it asked for the moon knowing that it didn't have a hope in hell of netting the stars. "You could see people shaking their heads while their spokesman was still talking," he says. People were sucking air in through their teeth in that gesture of dismay beloved by builders and car mechanics, he adds. "You could tell that they were just not going to get anywhere."

Some experts believe that the group's problems began at its birth, by which time the Trademarks Bill was well advanced. However, it garnered wide support among the Lords (a surprising number of whom appeared to do the weekly shop), with careful and thorough briefings that wrong-footed retailers' trade bodies which had neglected to inform peers of their views. Seasoned lobby correspondents described it as "a carefully planned ambush", lobbyists argue that it should have applied itself earlier to influencing those in the lower house.

That is not to denigrate the House of Lords, which can prove a far more fertile ground for lobbyists. Lord Howie of Troon, who once resided in the other house as a Labour MP, says: "There is a certain amount of expertise in the Lords: we do actually know what we are doing."

The most obvious difference between the houses is that the Lords is less party political -- there are 200 independent members -- and, therefore, far less aggressive and competitive. "We do not have that atmosphere of conflict," says Howie. "We are not out to score political points off each other's hides and there is more cross-voting and influence." The subtle difference -- and decided advantage as far lobbyists are concerned -- is that ministers are far more accessible and "persuadable" in the Lords.

"The atmosphere in the upper house means that you can talk to a minister without him immediately feeling as if he is under attack," Howie comments. "And you can get to him -- literally, take him by the elbow outside the chamber."

Legislation that starts life in the Lords is open to greater influence than Commons-born initiatives. Howie recalls the 1988 Copyright Act, whose passage through the Lords was slowed by some 1200 amendments.

"We attacked the bill on its merits, which is the key to the Lords: the thing will be dealt with on its worth rather than on political proclivities."

The Brand Owners Group appears to be getting its longer term act together, looking at the advice offered by the panel of experts at last month's "Putting Your Case to Parliament" seminar (organised by the Institute of Public Relations, Two Ten Communications and PMS). …

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