Dirk Paterson: How I have fought against 'cash for access' lobbying

Written by Dirk Paterson on 26 February 2018 in Opinion

Public affairs professionals need to learn lessons of the past and move on from shady deals in Westminster.

Influencing is not about cash for access anymore. Good lobbying is about three things: strategy strategy strategy.

When I first said this in a board meeting I had a full-on row the CEO who argued that I should be able to buy access to the prime minister. I have found the need to reiterate the ‘no cash for access’ principle on numerous occasions since.

In one corporate job I was told to use the firm’s box at the National Theatre to entertain MPs and special advisors. For another I was told to entertain select committee members at expensive private dining rooms in top Westminster restaurants at a cost of £3000 a time for 10 dining places.

In one agency it was cited that I should emulate the PR team who could buy access to top footballers with champagne and a box at the match for their clients. I have also heard of a former special adviser who had to leave a public affairs firm because he was under so much pressure to fix an inappropriate client dinner with a senior government figure.

More recently I tweeted out the same mantra  - strategy not cash -  when a former Tory cabinet member was exposed for telling corporate lobbyists to use his wife’s firm to influence government. And just last week a Guardian article about “the most schmoozed councillor in politics” detailed the deputy leader of Westminster Council who has had over 500 pieces of extravagant corporate entertainment over the past three years.  

Its time to take stock. We need to learn lessons of the past and move on. I started working in public affairs in 1996. Just before the Derek Draper scandal of 1998 which finished his career and damaged the public affairs industry in the UK. In those days life was very different, but some still operate as if we’re in that era.

Influential parliamentarians and government figures are usually sensitised to accusations of sleaze. So schmoozing or bribery in any form is old hat and bad form.  If an MP or a government member sees you or your client because of the offer of a dinner or an opera ticket, beware. They’re probably not influential and if they are at the moment, they are unlikely to be for long.

My firm is currently running an influencing programme for a client with no lunches or theatre tickets in sight. We help MPs with select committee inquiries, debates, questions and so on.  MPs then get noticed for their helpful interventions.

Modern public affairs professionals have changed the transactional terms of the relationship between client and influencer. We think about how our clients can help MPs and government ministers, not how people in parliament and the executive can help us. We don’t need bribery to create access.  Rather we create a position where influencers need the advice of our clients. In this way our clients provide real thought leadership for decision makers and influencers.

That’s a whole different mind set from the sleazy methodology which has dominated our industry in past. The new mindset is empowering to our profession and to our client base.

To be successful in the long term, modern public affairs consultants need to build their practice on a set of values where integrity and accountability is key. That is how we build a reputation both for ourselves and for our clients. Shady deals in the shadows of a Westminster restaurant simply don’t cut it any more. 




Dirk Paterson is founding director of The Corporate Comms Shop. He has held various in-house and agency public affairs roles.






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