Rebuttal: Is it ‘completely unfair’ to call Charlotte Street Partners corporate lobbyists?

CommonSpace spoke to three lobbying experts about whether it was ‘completely unfair’ to describe Charlotte Street Partners as corporate lobbyists

ANDREW WILSON, chair of the SNP’s Growth Commission on the economics of independence published at the start of June, was interviewed in the Sunday Herald on 1 July.

In the interview, Wilson was asked about his day job, head of “strategic communications” firm Charlotte Street Partners, which has had offices in Edinburgh and London since establishing in January 2014.

Wilson denied he is a corporate lobbyist and said this description of his firm was “completely unfair”.

He said: “Create a pejorative term, badge someone and then you can stop thinking…I work for a strategic communications consultancy.

“I can think of one occasion when I have spoken to a government minister with a client on the issues that affect the client, and that government minister was David Mundell.

“It’s completely unfair. It doesn’t reflect the reality of what we do here. We’ve become a target.”

CommonSpace is one of those media outlets to refer to Wilson as a corporate lobbyist when describing the Growth Commission chair.

Is Wilson right? Is this labelling “completely unfair”? CommonSpace analysed Charlotte Street Partners’ (CSP) record and spoke to three experts on lobbying in Scotland to find out.

READ MORE: The Growth Commission, Charlotte Street Partners and Scotland's ruling class networks

CSP does not publish a list of its clients but some of those it has worked on behalf of include News Scotland – Rupert Murdoch-owned publishers of The Times and The Sunday Times – the supermarket giant Tesco, Cluff Natural Resources (an underground coal gasification firm), the UK Green Investment Bank, Universities Scotland (representatives of university principals), the bus company FirstGroup and the current ScotRail franchise providers Abellio, owned by the Dutch Government.

CPS does not deny that it works on behalf of some major corporations and state-backed companies with business interests that evidently enter the realm of politics.

CSP’s own website describes what it does as “help[ing] businesses, organisations and individuals create and deliver strategies for communicating with their customers, staff, media, investors and financial markets, employees, politicians and regulators”.

Specific services CSP offer include “political and regulatory affairs”.

“With the political and regulatory landscape constantly evolving, we know that any successful business needs to maintain a sharp focus on such matters,” the site adds.

CSP was previously more explicit about its work on its website. In a 2015 report on lobbying in Scotland by the Electoral Reform Society (ERS), SpinWatch and Unlock Democracy, the authors’ stated in the section on CSP: “What does Charlotte Street do for its clients? ‘Whether it is a major bid for a new franchise or a policy decision you need taken in your favour,’ Charlotte Street is on hand to help in the ‘relentless pursuit of your interests’, it says.”

READ MORE: Holyrood Exposed – a guide to lobbying in Scotland

The report also highlighted how CSP – whose staff include Kevin Pringle, former spin-doctor to Alex Salmond and SNP comms director, and Wilson himself, who was previously an SNP MSP - undertakes “some high-level schmoozing of politicians”.

“Charlotte Street Partners has organised a dinner discussion with Nicola Sturgeon, and wined and dined her [former] special adviser on energy and enterprise, Malcolm Fleming, as well as the government’s head of policy, Colin McAllister,” the report stated.

Other CSP meetings included Derek Mackay, current finance minister, in 2015 while transport secretary, and Alexander Anderson, special adviser to the government on infrastructure and investment, also in 2015.

Despite Wilson’s claims that CSP has only lobbied a government minister once on client business and is not a corporate lobbying firm, the Office of the Registrar of Consultant Lobbyists has the firm registered, and shows that the firm has lobbied on behalf of the Wireless Infrastructure Group twice, as well as A.G. Barr and Carrick Therapeutics Ltd.

READ MORE: University bosses hired @CstreetPartners lobbyists over opposition to education reforms

Professor David Miller, co-founder of the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and co-author of ‘A Century of Spin: How public relations became the cutting edge of corporate power’, said it was “ridiculous” for Wilson to claim CSP are not corporate lobbyists.

“They work for clients and pursue the interest of those clients through political channels – it is clearly lobbying.

“It’s not a question of whether [Wilson] thinks it is lobbying; under the law what CSP do is considered lobbying. The European Parliament have a lobbying register which includes a very clear definition of what lobbying is.”

The EU’s lobbying register defines the scope for lobbying as: “Activities designed to influence - directly or indirectly - policymaking, policy implementation and decision-making in the EU institutions, no matter where they are carried out or which channel or method of communication is used. The emphasis is on ’what you do’ rather than ’who you are’.”

Thus CSP’s activities on behalf of its clients may not always include face-to-face meetings with politicians – the criteria for an entry to be made into the new Scottish Government lobbying register – but through utilising its networks, whether it be in the media or in political parties; they are seeking to influence politics, and therefore are lobbying.

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Miller added that it was now common for corporate lobbyists to describe their activities in other terms.

“If you look at the history of it, at first what organisations like CSP did was called propaganda, they didn’t like term because of the obvious connotations so they called it PR. Now they call it ‘strategic commissions’. It’s all euphemistic terms to pretend it’s something other than activities intended to influence politics on their client’s behalf.”

Alexandra Runswick, director of Unlock Democracy, a group working for increased transparency and democracy in politics told CommonSpace that CSP “is unequivocally a lobbying firm”.

She added: “Charlotte Street Partners describe themselves, on the front page of their website, as ‘skilled advisors… in political relations.’ The firm also promises a helping hand ‘whether it’s a bid for a new franchise or contract or an important matter of public policy.’ This is, by definition, the sale of lobbying services.”

READ MORE: SNP growth commission hit by secretive lobbying row

Runswick said that it was good for democracy for lobbyists to be transparent about what they do.

“Lobbying is part of democracy. However it’s vital that lobbying is transparent so that the public can scrutinise decisions made by the Scottish Parliament. If policy decisions are made behind closed doors, that is bad for public trust in politics and bad for democracy,” she stated.

Willie Sullivan, director of the Electoral Reform Society Scotland and campaigner in the Scottish Alliance for Lobbying Transparency (Salt), said of Wilson’s remarks: “It is disappointing but also concerning that anyone at Charlotte Street Partners might want to obscure what they do.

“Under any reasonable definition they are corporate lobbyists – the activity of buying the ability to shape public policy in the interests of money making is atimes in conflict with the public good.

“This smacks of the ‘dark arts’ of ‘strategic communications’. If it has feathers and quacks but only waddles in the dark it’s still a duck.”