Public affairs and professionalism: you want the label, take the responsibility

Public affairs and professionalism: you want the label, take the responsibility

Graduate of our Public Affairs Diploma and PR Academy course award winner Grant Thoms shares his views on whether public affairs is worthy of the label 'profession'. We'd love to hear your views.....

Fresh from hearing Mark Adams speak to the assembled mass of lobbyists in Edinburgh – okay, a good turnout for the Association for Scottish Public Affairs – the time has come to join the debate about the future of lobbying as a profession.

Much has been said over the past few years about the need to regulate lobbyists, as if somehow they are an invasive species. Alien to the native democratic structures.  An import from the North American body politic. Welcomed at first for its fragrant and colourful appearance, all style over substance, only to be found out later as a sprawling vine masking the fabric of democracy (or is it covering up how it binds itself to the bricks and mortar of public institutions). Alas, the metaphors shall end there.

Much of what Mark talked about at ASPA and represented, by his own admission, through his self-styled campaign, is straightforward common sense. On the spectrum of political advocacy, I can veer from the statist regulation of interest group representation through to more libertarian, lead-by-example, men-of-honour (and women for clearance of any doubt), rhetoricians-for-hire depending upon the context. When scandal erupts – and as Mark rightly points out, it usually is politicians at the heart of a scandal (Fox/Werrity, Taxi-for-hire) – I run to the rallying point of greater regulation. Regulation in my book should be high-level, mandatory state agency registration and compliance or at least a self-regulatory system equivalent to teachers, lawyers and doctors, with one caveat: no matter how high the regulatory system is, no system is fail-proof.

But the crux of the contemporary debate shouldn’t be whether to have a statutory register or not, but whether lobbying is effectively a profession worthy of that label.

As a graduate of the CIPR Public Affairs Diploma (well delivered by PR Academy), I had high hopes that this was the sort of development that would lead to a more formal examination of professional competence, in effect a licence to practice.  In reality, it does have a significant role to play but the gap is emerging between demonstrating a Masters-level proficiency in the theory of lobbying and a strategic approach to public affairs practice, and the more fundamental exploration of basic lobbying practice.

Many long-standing lobbying professionals groan at the mention that they ought to have some proficiency test in lobbying practice. Is that because they are genuinely such great exemplars of the ‘how to’ that it is an insult to request such compliance or is it more likely that ‘old dogs’ are no more likely to able to evidence that they can ‘communicate excellently’ as they are to learn new tricks?

My gauntlet is now well and truly slapped in the face of the high and not so mighty: prove to everyone you are as good as you think you are through peer-reviewed professional examination. That doesn’t have to mean a back-to-school approach of sitting written exams. Technology and professional association practice has moved on.

It’s interesting that you can study law and gain all sorts of academic recognition but in Scotland, it’s the Diploma in Legal Practice which is the enabler to actually being a solicitor. The DipLP is the practical learning required to understand how in practice you represent your client:  allowing all that jurisprudence knowledge base to have effect in a court of law. Why then do clients think that it is worth spending considerable sums of money on individuals whose claim to fame appears to be ‘I was at school with George’ or better still ‘David used to work for me’. Little or no requirement to prove any professional status but no doubt swayed by a high quotient in ‘perceived influence’ and a catalogue of successful though unproven actions. When did you ever hear of a lobbyist commissioning or building in evaluation to their proposal which will validate their campaign aims and objectives?

A real profession requires at least seven key characteristics:

*        Membership of a recognised association

*        A body of knowledge

*        A code of conduct

*        Institutionalised education and a commitment to continuing professional development (CPD)

*        A licence to practice

*        Professional autonomy for each individual practitioner

*        A system of holding members to account for their actions

Now, as an example, I am a member of the Chartered Institute of Practitioners (CIPR), Public Relations Consultants Association (PRCA), Association of Professional Political Consultants (APPC) and the Association for Scottish Public Affairs (ASPA).  That ticks the first box.

I have undertaken study of public relations and public affairs at postgraduate level but I would have to admit, neither actually assessed my competence to perform on the job.  I have to abide by all four Codes of Conduct for the various professional bodies. One of my next tasks is to compare and contrast the Codes to ascertain what exactly is different or special about anyone Code compared to the others. And more importantly, what’s missing. I am now an Accredited Practitioner of the CIPR in recognition of my commitment to CPD and I have now progressed to working towards Chartered status. The last two characteristics are challenging for individuals and the professional associations. I am quite happy with my current level of professional autonomy, however, the recent debacle surrounding the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s sting on lobby companies has highlighted my concern about the approach and thoroughness of holding members to account.  The behind closed doors review of professional practice does not serve members and the general public alike.

In conclusion, the time has come for a review of what being a ‘professional lobbyist’ means.  The debate about registers is but one part of an evolution of this occupation. For professionals in persuasive communication, we are collectively abysmal at our own PR.