Sunday, 28 July 2013

Lobbying and message discipline

A couple of stories in the papers caught my eye today. This one in the Observer about Philip Morris and its lobbying against plain packaging for cigarettes, and this one in the Telegraph where the head of payday lender Wonga argues the company is "a powerful force for good".

The main point I want to highlight in the first one is the way that lobbyists (whether in-house or external) try and boil their main arguments right down, and then repeat them.
The internal documents reveal how, over the past year, PMI sketched out a timeline for rolling out its key messages. These included the claim that plain packs would make the illicit trade in tobacco worse and the need for the UK government to "wait and see what happens in Australia [for two or three years] before walking into the unknown with no evidence it will reduce smoking".
The latter message was echoed by the government when it announced that it was abandoning the plan to introduce plain packs. The Department of Health's statement said: "The government has decided to wait until the emerging impact of the decision in Australia can be measured before we make a final decision."
This is an approach that I've become very familiar with when doing public policy work. In particular I've come across instances of lobbying lines being repeated over and over, to the extent that (as in the second para in the excerpt above) even those who didn't initiate the message end up mouthing it as if they had spontaneously thought of it.

Which brings me on to the Wonga story. As people are no doubt aware, the Church of England was a little embarrassed last week after it turned out that it invests in Wonga via a private equity manger. Why do I mention this? It's that phrase "a force for good". As I have blogged a few times before, clearly someone, somewhere gave the private equity industry some advice a few years back when the industry was suffering a public image problem. This seems to have included the suggestion that private equity firms present themselves "a force for good".

I first spotted the striking frequency with which this phrase was turning up in 2007. I then followed up in 2008 and 2009. The 2009 bit included a link to an interview with a strategic comms person about the industry could improve its image and he specifically suggests embracing the "force for good" role. Today if I Google "private equity" and "force for good" I get 350,000 results. It even crops up in a "responsible investment" guide to private equity and venture capital published by the BVCA.
Private equity and venture capital are increasingly recognised as a force for good in the UK, and in high growth economies around the world.
So as a lobbying/PR line it's well and truly established and regularly repeated about private equity without much thought, despite the rather contentious claim it represents. I have to say I have some sneaking respect for the corporate spinners that came up with and/or have enforced the line over the last few years. The frequencey with which it shows up demonstrates its they have done a good job.

Given all this it's perhaps not surprising to see a company (Wonga) that is a) taking a lot of flak and b) owned by private equity use it. It might be deliberate, and the result of some comms advice, or it may just have spread naturally. It will be interesting to see whether Wonga start using this line regularly. If so, my hunch would be that it does indeed demonstrate putting some comms advice into practice. 

More generally, this type of thing should make those of us who seek reform of the financial sector to be alert to the importance of a focused and sustained approach to key messages we want to get across. It's only a small part of what we need to do, but in my opinion it does need doing.

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