Working for a couple of months now in a corporate affairs firm, I often find it difficult to explain what exactly this job entails without resorting to an English-language term that almost sounds like a dirty word: lobbyist. Quite honestly, the term is often associated with an obnoxious individual prepared to do anything to get what he or she wants. This, combined with my past as a federal member of parliament and my largely political social circle, means I am often seen as having switched allegiances and gone over to the dark side of the force.
But what is the reality of the situation? What exactly does a lobbyist do? Does the profession have its own specific ethics? Is lobbying a necessary evil?
As a result of a meeting in London and an overwhelming need for a change of scenery, I discovered the world of consulting, joining the Belgian Agency Whyte Corporate Affairs, a new environment that touches on the worlds of economics, media, institutions and politics.
However, it is difficult to explain exactly what my job involves. To keep things simple, I have gotten into the habit of telling people that I am in “communications” – so not the traditional type, but the business variety. This enables me to give a more French-language slant to the term “corporate affairs”, which remains a somewhat vague concept for any self-respecting French speaker.
However, if there is one thing that you should know about lobbyists it is that they use a particular language that is all too often anglicised. It is therefore not uncommon to hear in Flemish or French-speaking meetings sentences such as: “Following a reco for his CSR programme, we had to organise a dry run for an elevator pitch so that he could get to the point and explain the targets of the assignment to his management and determine the next steps to be put in place to achieve the turn the page required in a win-win context”. A tad confusing, isn’t it?
Beyond the idiomatic language barrier, how can the profession of consultant, generally, and that of lobbyist, in particular, be defined?
First of all, what is a consultant? It is someone who, given his or her past experience or area of activity, provides advices to his or her clients, formulates recommendations, draws up action plans, ensures they are implemented, etc.
What about a public affairs consultant, or lobbyist? Specialising in the public domain, these professionals champion the interests, and sometimes the reputation, of certain companies and organisations among political decision-makers of all stripes. It is a profession with no shortage of practitioners: a city like Brussels has between 20,000 and 30,000 lobbyists!
Whether or not they are active on the European institutions front, lobbyists are indeed tasked with championing the interests of their clients. In reality, what I do, first and foremost, is communicate, with the objective of helping my clients to clarify or provide additional perspectives to politicians and other stakeholders. A line we never cross is forcing them to compromise on their values and choices.
You need to understand the subtle difference between wanting to impose a particular point of view and enabling those you are dealing with to be properly informed so that they can, ultimately, make the best possible decision.
Perhaps because I have also been influenced by more than 10 years of experience in ministerial offices, today I regard each of my clients as a Minister for whom I am the principal private secretary, budget adviser, cabinet secretary, special advisor, etc. My role is to ensure that they have all necessary information at their disposal in order to be able to achieve their objectives and that everything runs smoothly. The work is both interesting and exciting!
Is it normal that companies and organisations are obliged to use intermediaries to make their voices heard? Is it necessary to cry wolf whenever lobbyists in suits and ties are spotted wandering the corridors of parliaments?
In my opinion, it is more important to ensure that our decision-makers are as best informed as possible in order to make the best decisions in the broadest possible interest. To do this, it is essential that they have heard all points of view before making their decision.
Lobbying does therefore serve a purpose and is a legitimate profession, provided that its primary objective is to genuinely enhance the knowledge of decision-makers and that it refrains from any form of undue influence. In this respect, the profession operates within a framework and has its own code of ethics. BEPACT (Belgian Public Affairs Community) has drawn up a code for its members based on the principles of transparency, integrity and respect.
Moreover, the Parliamentary Commission on Political Renewal also takes this approach. It has, in fact, provided that lobbyists who want to actively engage with members of parliament will be required to register with the Parliament and clearly state the interests that they are representing.
So, is lobbyist a dirty word? Or is it, in fact, a legitimate, fascinating profession that is crucial for communication between all stakeholders in an issue?