In order to rise above the fray, players in the public affairs space have to come up with a mechanism for self-regulation – one that is based on an industry code of conduct and an honest examination of current practices.
Lobbying, sometimes described as the art of political persuasion, was at the heart of a recent scandal that highlighted the cronyism in India’s capitalist structure and the nature of the nexus between politicians, corporations and the media. This is not the first time in the history of lobbying that it has been associated with corruption and an attempt to subvert the system.
Despite this, few people will dispute the need for lobbying in our modern society. It has, after all, been responsible for several progressive reforms around the world and through the years. The end of slavery in the United States, the economic liberalisation in India, financial support for groundbreaking medical and technological research, have all been enabled by varying degrees of advocacy and lobbying.
The two are often used interchangeably but differ in one important respect. Lobbying is largely concerned with efforts to influence legislation while advocacy uses various touch points, including the media, to try and change individual behaviour, sway public opinion, or modify laws in favour of a specific cause.
As we grapple with ways to curb and regulate the negative forms of these activities in India, it is easy to feel a sense of helplessness. Certain industries appear so entrenched in the politics of corruption that it will take a lot to clean them up. In other ‘cleaner’ fields also, we see groups using inordinate influence and distorting the facts in order to push their cases through the hallways of power.
What then is a well-intentioned public affairs specialist to do? It seems almost naïve to believe that it is possible to advocate for a client or a cause without pushing the boundaries of ethical behaviour in some way – giving a bribe or a gift, or using some other dubious tactic to influence the final outcome. Such behaviour seems to be expected and encouraged by lawmakers and clients alike. There are currently a handful of public affairs ?irms acting on behalf of clients in India. The others are independent operators – individuals and corporate in-house specialists who have cultivated connections and honed their persuasive skills in political circles. Regulation has been proposed to make registration mandatory for these groups and individuals. Required disclosure on funding and sources for lobbying activities will also make the process more transparent to the general public.
These changes are critical from the standpoint of future legislation but for those who want to play by the rules today, the challenge is that there are none that are formally drawn for the profession. Like the person on the street, the public affairs domain is collectively caught in the riptide of systemic corruption.
If there is a will, however, it is possible to swim against these currents. What firms in the space need to do now is to put their heads together to develop mechanisms for self-regulation. Industry organisations such as the PRCAI could start by formulating a lobbying code of ethics for all its members, based on similar models implemented in other countries.
Such guidelines will be helpful, for instance, in establishing the kind of openness that is needed in declaring whom one represents and for what purpose. For now, this code of conduct may not be able to draw on prevailing lobbying laws as in other countries but it can remind members about ones that are frequently bypassed in the country. For instance, India does have anti-bribery laws in place but compliance with these has been weak so far. The good news is that the government has plans to add more teeth to these laws in the months to come. The risk of being exposed and damaging one’s reputation and those of clients in the process is also likely to serve as a deterrent.
Another area of change is simpler to tackle and doesn’t depend on external forces. Firms and individuals in the industry need to look inward and examine their current practices for signs of ethics violations. Since the line between what will and will not pass ethical muster is often very thin, we have to question every single one of our everyday tactics.
When it comes to media engagement, we should look at how far we are willing to go in influencing journalists. Are we willing to pay for a favourable story or a beneficial portrayal of a situation? When we scrutinise our interactions with public officials, are we able to justify the lunches and gifts as part of a real effort to highlight a specific problem or set of conditions? Or were we expecting these giveaways to influence the official response to the problem? And how comfortable are we with the idea of full disclosure? Can we honestly say that we are fine placing the better part of our lobbying-related arguments and expenditure on record?
This kind of introspection is essential because through it we will uncover several things we could change about the way we do business. Support for this exercise will have to initially come from the top before it can be integrated into the culture of a firm. But, once the idea of questioning every questionable practice takes root, it will spread to touch everybody else in the ecosystem – clients, competitors, policymakers. The changes it brings to the space may seem like baby steps at first but they will add up to a big leap in the direction of a more evolved and ethically mature industry.