Tuesday 12 December 2017

Swish PR houses segue from one Party to the next

Calls for transparency in the consultancy arena have rattled the spin doctors, writes Maeve Sheehan

Maeve Sheehan

Maeve Sheehan

WHEN Pat Rabbitte was invited to speak at an awards dinner for public relations consultants in the Conrad Hotel last year, he couldn't resist getting in a dig at the spin doctors over the passing of millions of euro in State contracts doled out by Fianna Fail-dominated governments.

The newly crowned Communications Minister faux-sighed at harrowing tales of how "big-name PR consultants" walked aimlessly in Stephens Green in a trance-like state; paid visits to the Dail bar only to find strangers had taken over; or had mobile phones with numbers of former government ministers on speed dial decommissioned.

"But they are all gone now and there is nothing more that the electorate can do to you.

"It is safe to come out again, even if things will never again be the same," Mr Rabbitte soothed.

Times have changed. The new austerity means State contracts have shrivelled up and the new Government has the troika to answer to before splurging on PR.

And now that it's in power, Labour wants to fulfil a long-held ambition to force lobbyists -- paid to influence policymakers behind closed doors, often on behalf of rich clients -- out of the shadows by making them sign up to a public register. The thinking is that those who are paid to try and influence government should be publicly disclosed.

Lobbying is big business and government ministers predict it will get more sophisticated and more intense as margins fall. Most big PR firms have "public affairs divisions" -- the PR term for lobbyist. It's no surprise that many of these divisions are staffed by former politicos.

They are not all in PR: some of the best lobbyists work "in house" for trade union and industry groups. Large solicitors' firms are also reportedly getting in on the lobbying action for corporate clients.

A register might tell us which of them is bending which minister's ear and on whose behalf, although there is dispute over how much they must disclose and who exactly will have to disclose it.

There's one thing the register won't change and that is, in an industry where access is key, who you know rather than what you know is often what counts. In the fickle world of PR, spin doctors are cutting the cloth to fit the measure of the changed regime. Having someone on board with links to the new regime "makes sense", according to one practitioner.

A month after Fianna Fail's general election debacle, Edelman, an international PR agency, headhunted Olywn Enright, the former Fine Gael TD, to fill a vacancy in its public affairs division. She quit politics because of the demands of caring for her young family, but the Fine Gael connection remains through her husband, Joe McHugh, a Fine Gael TD for Donegal.

Her appointment has nicely balanced out the allegiance of the firm's chairman and head of public affairs, the former Fianna Fail TD, Jim Glennon.

Tony Heffernan, a longstanding Labour Party press secretary, retired in April, staged a comeback for Michael D Higgins's presidential campaign, and is now a director at DHR Communications, which was itself founded by a former Labour press officer, Catherine Heaney, and whose chairman is the former union leader, Peter Cassels.

The agency has been flourishing lately, winning three public sector contracts in the two months before Mr Heffernan joined: the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, Skillnets and Irish Aid.

Fine Gael is also well represented in PR. Alan Dukes, a former Fine Gael leader and government minister, is a longstanding consultant on public affairs for Wilson Hartnell PR. He is chairman of the former Anglo Irish Bank. Anglo appointed a receiver to the Quinn Group. The Quinn Group is a client of Wilson Hartnell. Mr Dukes doesn't do any lobbying himself on behalf of the PR firm; he gives advice to the PR firm's lobbyists.

Mark Mortell, a PR guru, took leave of absence from his job as director at Fleishman Hillard to work with Enda Kenny on Fine Gael's general election campaign. Job done, he is now back in his PR firm, although he inadvertently caused the first "cronyism" accusations against the new Government when his firm won a lucrative contract for State training agency, Fas, on the day of the general election.

Mr Mortell's political loyalty might be regarded as admirable. Others, such as Terry Prone, the doyenne of political spin doctors, seem to segue seamlessly from one political administration to the next. Her husband, Tom Savage, once advised Albert Reynolds while she taught media savvy to Fianna Fail stalwarts such as Padraig Flynn and Dr John O'Connell in the mid-1990s; coached Gay Mitchell in his presidency bid and was credited with "polishing" Enda Kenny's 'state of the nation' address.

The regime change may also be interesting for Q4, the PR consultancy which was nicknamed Friends of Fianna Fail by a former Fine Gael TD, Bernard Allen. Founded by Martin Mackin, who was general secretary of Fianna Fail, and Jackie Gallagher, former Fianna Fail press adviser, in 2003, the firm quickly won a string of State contracts, including one for the ill-fated e-voting deal, and the National Consumer Association. They beat off competition to land the contract for Irish Rail in the dying weeks of the last regime.

One practitioner said having political connections doesn't necessarily help win State contracts but "it certainly helps to hold on to existing clients". And as long as you're not wasting their time, the Government is "very accessible", said a practitioner.

He told the story of a chief executive of a foreign company who asked a PR company to arrange a meeting with Enda Kenny and Michael Noonan on his next trip to Dublin -- apropos of nothing.

The PR company suggested he "waited until he had something to say".

Lobbyists often prefer to bend the ear of civil servants, or even Oireachtas committee members. Paul Allen, who was a Fianna Fail activist, successfully lobbied Brian Cowen's Department when he was Finance Minister to change excise duty on micro-breweries. Mr Allen said he dealt directly with a senior civil servant. "Politicians come and go but civil servants only become more senior," he said.

Nevertheless, the path from Leinster House to swish PR houses is well-trodden by former politicians and their advisers. Former Fianna Fail spin doctor PJ Mara is still regarded as the original and the best.

Frank Dunlop, a former government press secretary, sullied the name of lobbyists by bribing politicians for planning permission. Noel Dempsey, former Fianna Fail Transport Minister, is now offering his services to companies as a consultant on governmental relations and public affairs. Liz O'Donnell, a former Progressive Democrats junior minister, is also working as a consultant offering to help "navigate" policy.

Her former colleague, Tom Parlon, caused consternation when he went from junior minister at the OPW -- which handles state building projects -- to head of the Construction Industry Federation.

Their former colleagues in the PDs, Ray Gordon, a former press officer, and Stephen O'Byrnes, a policy maker, won the contract to lobby the Government on behalf of the Irish Pharmacy Union when Mary Harney, their former leader, was in Health. Both Mr Gordon and Mr O'Byrnes now have their own agencies, and Mr Gordon's clients include Nama, the National Treasury Management Agency and Irish Life & Permanent.

The industry is not in general objecting to a lobbyists register. There is concern though about how much they will have to divulge and the exodus of ex-politicians and their advisers into their ranks.

The chief executive of the Public Relations Institute of Ireland, Gerry Davis, said: "An issue that we have . . . is that people who are former members of either house, then join public relations firms or who set up as public affairs consultants, who have lifelong access to the houses.

"We feel that can give a level of access that other people don't have . . . anybody who is willing to go on a register should have the same access as everybody else."

Mr Davis believes ex-politicos should be subjected to a two-year "cooling-off" period before joining the lobby. "If you have a government minister who subsequently leaves politics for whatever reason and then becomes head of a particular organisation, well, he shouldn't be able to lobby the ministry that he or she had left for two years."

Such restrictions on civil servants and political advisers are already under consideration by Public Expenditure and Reform Minister Brendan Howlin. Public consultations end on February 29. Meanwhile, lobbyists will do what they do best: and there is no shortage of formidable proponents who have the ear of the current regime.

Sunday Independent

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