The co-operative putting ethics into lobbying

Scotland’s first worker co-operative that offers an ethical approach to lobbying has been launched in Edinburgh. Public Affairs Co-operative is aiming to offer value-led communication strategies to organisations keen...

Scotland’s first worker co-operative that offers an ethical approach to lobbying has been launched in Edinburgh.

Public Affairs Co-operative is aiming to offer value-led communication strategies to organisations keen to reach the right audiences in government, parliament, media and local communities.

Its client portfolio will be carefully chosen and profits shared among staff and chosen good causes.

The co-operative was founded by Neil Cuthbert, who has over 20 years of public policy experience working in the government, private and third sectors including a spell working for the Food and Drink Federation and a policy role with an educational charity representing the interests of Further Education Colleges in Scotland

He says: “I always felt there was a niche in the market. There are a lot of smaller groups out there who have a need for a professional service when it comes to media strategy and political and community engagement but not large amounts of money to spend.”

One of the co-operative’s first tasks was to set up a website in March and in the first months of business its client base is already growing fast.

“The big difference for us is openness and transparency and saying this is what we are going to do and what we are going to charge professional bodies. We will take a much more open approach. Every year we will publish who our clients are and what we have been doing.

“We are already really getting stuck into a community energy scheme in Argyll and Bute, which contacted us before they submitted a planning application and we have been talking to local politicians. We are also working with a charity in the healthcare sector and talking to a number of community renewable projects.”

Neil Cuthbert, with over 20 years of public policy experience, is co-founder of the Public Affairs Co-operative
Neil Cuthbert, with over 20 years of public policy experience, is co-founder of the Public Affairs Co-operative

The co-operative’s innovative approach to public affairs is a particularly timely one in light of the new government proposals around lobbying and campaigning that came into force on September 19.

The Transparency of Lobbying, Non Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014 introduced new rules that mean spending on a wider range of campaigning activities that can be seen as intending to influence voters at an election is now regulated.

The new rules include an increase in the amount campaigners can spend before being required to register and report their spending to the Electoral Commission.

However, there is an overall reduction in the amount they can spend at UK parliamentary general elections, with a spending limit of £9,750 per parliamentary constituency.

The Act has been criticised by some charities and campaign groups concerned it will restrict their ability to legitimately campaign in the 12 months leading up to a UK election

In the midst of the ongoing debate, Neil Cuthbert accepts that regulation was necessary, but believes much more needs to be done to change public perception.

“Reform of lobbying means greater transparency, but this legislation only deals with commercial lobbyists and the rules about what constitutes lobbying are quite narrowly drawn. The Labour Party has said it does not go far enough. As a member of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations I share their view which was it was not perfect but it’s a start.

“Lobbying and public affairs is still seen as some kind of ‘dark art’. You have to start asking yourself not only why that’s the case, but why it’s failed to change. Despite being an industry that works to protect its clients’ reputations, it has somehow failed to protect its own. I believe that’s because it’s not done enough to define its values.

“It can feel like it’s an exclusive, members-only club. Or that if you have to ask how much it costs, you probably can’t afford it. For community groups, charities and social enterprises that can be enough disincentives to stop them asking altogether. That’s why I set out to find a team willing to do something different – open, ethical, and with a business model that proved our values.”

The Public Affairs Co-operative team comprises Neil, former Scotsman assistant editor David Lee, chartered accountant Ben McLeish, consultant Emma Beeby, who has worked extensively with the Scottish Parliament, and administrator Paula Paterson.

One of the most notable differences between the Public Affairs Co-operative and its private sector rivals is the actual cost of operations.

“We are the only public affairs company to offer discounts for co-operatives and charities and we pitch our pricing at a level to help communities with up to 50% off the headline figure for our competitors,” says Neil.

The co-operative offers a series of fixed price packages with effective, short term solutions for organisations wanting support in preparing a strategy, access to training, or extra capacity to deal with bigger announcements

These include a Strategy Starter Kit for organisations that want some help in focusing their communications and developing a strategy with key priorities. There is also a Community Renewables Kit to help community groups thinking of taking forward a renewables project in understanding what to expect from the planning process, common obstacles, intelligence on their local council and tools for strategic engagement to improve chances of projects securing planning consent.

Though based in Edinburgh, the co-operative hopes to cast its net far and wide across the UK. “One of the areas we are hoping to grow business in is community renewables. They offer a fantastic opportunity and we have seen first-hand how rural communities can benefit in areas of real deprivation We are there to help them build a media plan, support and engage with the political decision-makers.

“People don’t like the MP who resigns one day and the next is working for company lobbying. We are totally at the other end of the market. It’s all about working with values-driven organisations and helping them better communicate. We have spent a lot of time thinking how we do this and it’s pretty obvious what angle we are coming from.

“We’ll choose our clients carefully – we want to work with organisations who share our values, as we believe this is what they want from a public affairs company. Speaking to others in the industry, I see how much the kind of approach we’re taking appeals to them as well. I don’t think we’ll be the last to take this road, but we’re very excited to be the first.”

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Tips for co-ops wanting to campaign in the run up to the General Election:

  • Have a clear objective
  • Set out your strategy
  • Start early – the General Election is not far off
  • Identify key people
  • Build alliances to generate interest
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