Advocacy and Lobbying: What Can We Learn from the Bad Guys?

April 1, 2015

     By Duncan Green     

A colleague of mine who shall be nameless (you know who you are Max), urges his fellow campaigners to ‘learn from the

a quiet word cover

enemy’ – Machiavelli, Friedman, Big Tobacco, you get the picture. A new book by Tamasin Cave and Andy Rowell may help. A Quiet Word: Lobbying, Crony Capitalism and Broken Politics in Britain has lessons for activism stretching well beyond our borders. The authors summarized their ’10 lessons’ in a recent Guardian piece. I’ve cut it down a bit, and added some commentary about the relevance to aid and development organizations in italics.

‘Lobbyists are the paid persuaders whose job it is to influence the decisions of government. Lobbyists operate in the shadows – deliberately. As one lobbyist notes: “The influence of lobbyists increases when it goes largely unnoticed by the public.”

[Tricky for aid and development types committed both to transparency and inclusion of the people whose voice is normally ignored – see post on the Dark Arts of advocacy]

Here are 10 key steps that lobbying businesses follow to bend government to their will.

1. Control the ground

Lobbyists succeed by owning the terms of debate, steering conversations away from those they can’t win and on to those they can. If a public discussion on a company’s environmental impact is unwelcome, lobbyists will push instead to have a debate on the hypothetical economic benefits of their ambitions. Once this narrowly framed conversation becomes dominant, dissenting voices will appear marginal and irrelevant.

[Yep, I’m still trying to learn to not answer the question in interviews, but get back to the basic framing discussions instead]

2. Spin the media

The trick is in knowing when to use the press and when to avoid it. The more noise there is, the less control lobbyists have. As a way of talking to government, though, the media is crucial.

large_lobbyists-trenton[And to fix it when things go wrong. In the UK] Private healthcare regrouped after the wrong messages went public. As Andrew Lansley embarked on his radical reforms of the NHS, private hospitals and outsourcing firms were talking to investors about the “clear opportunities” to profit from the changes. Mark Britnell, the head of health at accountancy giants KPMG and a former adviser of David Cameron, hit the headlines in May 2011,  telling an investors’ conference that “the NHS will be shown no mercy and the best time to take advantage of this will be in the next couple of years.” The industry got a grip. Lobby group The NHS Partners Network moved quickly to get everyone back on-message and singing from “common hymn sheets”, as its chief lobbyist David Worskett explained. The reforms were about the survival of the NHS in straitened times. Just nobody mention the bumper profits.

[Aid agencies are generally savvy media operators, provided they stick to their broader mission and don’t get too hung up on their own survival]

3. Engineer a following

It doesn’t help if a corporation is the only one making the case to government. That looks like special pleading. What is needed is a critical mass of voices singing to its tune. This can be engineered. The forte of lobbying firm Westbourne is in mobilising voices behind its clients. Thirty economists, for example, signed a letter to the FT in 2011 in support of the High Speed 2 rail link; 100 businesses endorsed another published in the Daily Telegraph.

[Building broad alliances is a standard NGO tactic, and they don’t have to be bought – economists and others will happily sign up if your argument is sound]

4. Buy in credibility

Corporations are one of the least credible sources of information for the public. What they need, therefore, are authentic, seemingly independent people to carry their message for them.

One nuclear lobbyist admitted it spread messages “via third-party opinion because the public would be suspicious if we started ramming pro-nuclear messages down their throats”. The tobacco companies are pioneers of this technique. Their recent campaign against plain packaging has seen them fund newsagents to push the economic case against the policy and encourage trading standards officers to lobby their MPs. British American Tobacco also currently funds the Common Sense Alliance, which is fronted by two ex-policemen and campaigns against “irrational” regulation.

[We don’t always pay enough attention to getting the messenger right as well as the message – decision makers will often listen to a captain of industry, Archbishop or a Nobel laureate, when they would ignore campaigners]

5. Sponsor a thinktank

“The thinktank route is a very good one,” said ex-minister Patricia Hewitt to undercover reporters seeking lobbying advice. lobbying 101

Documents from Philip Morris reveal  that the leading neo-liberal thinktank, the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) is one of its “media messengers” in its anti- plain-packaging campaign.

[We work closely with lots of thinktanks as partners, but most of the time can’t afford to actually hire them – they cost a bomb]

6. Consult your critics

Companies faced with a development that has drawn the ire of a local community will often engage lobbyists to run a public consultation exercise. Again, not as benign as it sounds. “Businesses have to be able to predict risk and gain intelligence on potential problems,” says ex-Tesco lobbyist Bernard Hughes. “The army used to call it reconnaissance; we call it consultation.”

[Not so relevant, but the Tesco quote is a gem]

7. Neutralise the opposition

Lobbyists see their battles with opposition activists as “guerrilla warfare”. They want government to listen to their message, but ignore counter arguments coming from campaigners.

Lobbyists have developed a sliding scale of tactics to neutralise such a threat. Monitoring of opposition groups is common: one lobbyist from agency Edelman talks of the need for “360-degree monitoring” of the internet, complete with online “listening posts … so they can pick up the first warning signals” of activist activity. Rebuttal campaigns are frequently employed: “exhausting, but crucial,” says Westbourne.

Lobbyists have also long employed divide-and-rule tactics. One Shell strategy proposed to “differentiate interest groups into friends and foes”, building relationships with the former, while making it “more difficult for hardcore campaigners to sustain their campaigns”. Philip Morris’s covert 10-year strategy, codenamed Project Sunrise, intended to “drive a wedge between various anti groups” and “position antis as extremists”.

[We certainly understand the need to identify ‘leaders and laggards’ in any given sector and work with the former to overcome the latter. But I don’t think we’re good enough at rapid rebuttal or picking up early signals of new anti-development threats, though – we usually wait til they bite us before reacting]

8. Control the web

Today’s world is a digital democracy, say lobbyists. Gone are the old certainties of how decisions were made “by having lunch with an MP, or taking a journalist out,” laments one. It presents a challenge, but not an insurmountable one.

so become one....

so become one….

One key way to control information online is to flood the web. Lobbying agencies create phoney blogs for clients and press releases that no journalist will read – all positive content that fools search engines into pushing the dummy content above the negative, driving the output of critics down Google rankings. Relying on the fact that few of us regularly click beyond the first page of search results, lobbyists make negative content “disappear”.

Another means of restricting access to information is the doctoring of Wikipedia, “a ridiculous organisation,” in veteran lobbyist Tim Bell’s words.

[I really hope no NGOs or campaigners are doing this]

9. Open the door

Access to politicians can be bought. It is not a cash deal, rather an investment is made in the relationship. Lobbyists build trust, offer help and accept favours. The best way to shortcut the process of relationship-building is to hire politicians’ friends, in the form of ex-employees or colleagues.

 [Well we certainly employ a few parliamentary and political lobbyists, but they don’t have cheque books to wave around. Instead we rely on building relationships the hard way.]

10. And finally …

There is the perception, at least, that decisions taken in government could be influenced by the reward of future employment. The department that sees more movement than any other is still the Ministry of Defence. Since 1996, officials and military officers have taken up more than 3,500 jobs in arms and defence related companies.

[Just can’t see offering jobs in Oxfam as a major incentive……]

But I see plenty missing from this list:

The importance of seizing the windows of opportunity provided by shocks (disasters, crises and scandals), as Naomi Klein has brilliantly shown.

Find yourself a (very) rich backer – The Koch brothers have probably done more to undermine the climate movement than anyone else (but I guess this is easier for the bad guys, right?)

If you’re thinking long term, better to hire a university than a thinktank. In the 1950s at the University of Chicago, Hayek, Friedman and Harberger were busily nurturing the neoliberal flame when all about them was Keynesianism or worse. They set up a scholarship system with Chile’s Catholic University in 1955, taking their bright young things for some serious brainwashing. 20 years later the ‘Chicago Boys’ provided the hatchet men for General Pinochet’s economic policy – now that’s what I call a long game.

Other suggestions?


April 1, 2015
Duncan Green