Kevin Bell, global chair of Burson Marsteller’s public affairs practice, reflects on the role of lobbying, Brexit and more, in conversation with Campaign India. Edited Excerpts:
How big is the public affairs practice globally, and how big is it in India?
In India it is still growing. India has grasped it, and growing hugely. With India having around 30 States and then the national element, there’s plenty of scope for growth. India has a thriving democracy, free press (which is very loud). What I mean by that is that the press is very vociferous. South Africa is similar. It’s very aggressive and in-your-face too.
From a public affairs perspective, India is definitely in the top five (for BM). The other key offices are London, Washington, Beijing and Brussels, in no particular order. It moves around all the time.
In my pecking order India is in the top three. The simple reason is that the spoken and written English is excellent and they often do help me (and others) with crisis, monitoring and advocacy. We have very bright people in this part of the world. The education system in the country is excellent. Youngsters here are very tech savvy. They understand the power of smartphone and the internet, and importantly know how to use it. They understand politics and the media very well too.
We work on public affairs primarily and it can be very sensitive politically. When we stop work in the (United) States or London, someone takes over (because of the time difference) and India often becomes the place.
I don’t know what it is about the people in this country but they have very good analytical minds. They know how to think and interpret and how to advice. They’re very entrepreneurial. They are very hungry and ambitious. They are always prepared to ‘go the extra mile’. I suppose it’s just a cultural thing.
How big is government relations within public affairs? Does this have a higher share in India?
Within public affairs, government relations would be the largest offering. In India as well it would be having a larger share within the services offered.
In simple terms, is public affairs in India any different from public affairs in a market like the UK or US? How evolved is it in China?
The US is very ‘American’ and America centric. India is far more forward looking.
China is different altogether. You can’t lobby the Chinese government in the way you lobby other governments. You have to be more sensitive to the whole cultural aspect. I call it ‘communications advice’ and not ‘public affairs’ in China.
What role does 'lobbying' play in public affairs? How would you define it? In recent times, the practice has drawn flak for employing unethical means. Where does one draw the line?
I’ve been a lobbyist all my working life, having started off in 1979. Lobbying as a raw term is about lobbying a government or local advocacy. It’s about helping guide people through fundamental and parliamentary process. It’s a huge business in the United States. It’s still relatively small in its infant stage in this country (India). It’s more public affairs than lobbying here, I would say. But that will develop over time. People are still finding their way. It doesn’t need lots of rules and regulations, it just needs transparency.
If someone has used unethical means to lobby, then they need to be found out and then hopefully they will go out of business. The good ones who are open and transparent will stay in business.
The line needs be drawn. If you’re in the clothes business and your lobbyist has done something wrong, you go to someone else, otherwise your business will suffer.
There have been discussions on Brexit's long term impact on global companies. Specific to India, do you see any impact?
It’s too early to talk about the impact because nobody really knows. But it will have an impact.
It’s a question of listening and learning at the moment. The UK government is in listening mode. The irony is that the civil service in the UK were told they couldn’t prepare for Brexit because (David) Cameron and (George) Osborne assumed that they were going to win. So no preparation was done. So, now they’re going to start.
The Brexit minister David Davis is now having meetings everyday with different sectors (retail/finance etc.) and talking to individual companies to figure what they feel or need and their worries and opportunities.
From an Indian perspective, it’s going to be helpful if things are played well. I’m sure the Indian and UK governments will be sitting down together and discussing free trade deals between Britain and India. It should be (hopefully) pretty straightforward in a year or two, by the time we’ve exited.
The other unknown is – the German government’s view will be totally different to the French government’s view and that will be totally different to the EU’s view in Brussels. So no one really knows what will happen.
Behind outcomes like Brexit, there were two sets of communicators at work. Why do you think 'Leave' prevailed over 'Remain'? What did the losing lobby do wrong?
I think the 'Leave' campaign message was much simpler. It was, ‘Take back control’. The remain message was too complicated and diverse. To a certain extent they were fighting their last war rather than the current one. They never sold the positive messages to why Britain should remain in the EU. Plus, to be fair, the media for over 20 years was criticising Brussels and the EU.
The Brits are a funny lot. They have this love-hate relationship with the continent of Europe. They are geographically a part of Europe but they’ve had a hate relationship with EU. What is rather telling, is that a lot of the leaders of the leave EU campaign have second homes, or holiday homes in France! So, they love France/Germany/Austria, but they don’t want to be a part of the European Union.
Referendums are dangerous things because a lot of people don’t vote for the things on paper. They voted because they didn’t like Cameron/Osborne or some different agenda.
Across industries and markets, we see clarion calls for transparency on one side. On the other, there is diminished trust in 'business'. How do you view this?
I think there is a mood amongst people throughout the world that is critical of businesses and governments. Now, people feel empowered. They do so because of smartphones. They can communicate directly to each other, to groups, to the media and even politicians. Everybody is now a reporter. So when a politician or business stands up and says the world is round, somebody says hang on a second and starts a debate about it. Everyone has a strong view now. Gone are the days people can be talked at, or talked down to.
I think companies are better at talking to consumers than politicians are. Everyone recognises Coca-Cola around the world, but you don’t see that with politicians. Communication has been a great leveler and politicians haven’t quite got the hang of it. People can react much quicker and have their own views now.