The Sunday Times party funding investigation is being wrongly conflated into a lobbying scandal by leader writers and others who see this as a good opportunity to keep up the pressure on the public affairs profession, which they either misunderstand or don't like.
It does not seem to matter that the advice given to The Sunday Times journalists during their sting is a far cry from the high standards expected of a public affairs professional and ignored the most appropriate and effective means of influencing policy. Although in the video Sarah Southern says that she will not be registering herself as a lobbyist, she has advertised herself as such and has operated without accountability and with an arrogant disregard for the democratic process.
Despite the absence of a professional lobbyist, as we saw in the Adam Wherrity case, blame is unfairly cast in our direction. There is a danger that lobbying will become the scapegoat for the sort of greed and corruption exposed by the Sunday Times unless we do more to promote the professional standards of the vast majority of the industry.
Ethics and standards of practice are linked and they are enhanced by accountability. Members of the CIPR, APPC and PRCA are regulated by codes of conduct backed up rigorous disciplinary procedures and supported by access to professional development, skills training, qualifications and expert best practice guidance. The important thing is that the clients, employers and the public can seek to hold them to account for their professional conduct. The CIPR is pushing for a register of lobbyists that supports these structures by identifying who is a regulated professional and who is not. This could support all representative bodies and most importantly, help promote industry standards.
Clients and employers who want a voice in the political process should choose to work with regulated, accountable professionals who recognise that influencing public policy is a sensitive issue. The public affairs and wider public relations profession has a choice to make as well. Support industry self-regulation or risk registration becoming Government regulation and possibly prohibition. We must show that there is a clear difference between professional and unprofessional lobbying.
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