How to tell if your lobbyist is a snake oil salesman

Joker or genius?

When a lobbying campaign wins, everyone wants to be a winner, and claims to be the reason why the campaign won.  People who had nothing to do with the win, will claim that they were pivotal.

Proximity to the events does not mean,  whatever anyone will tell you, that someone contributed to the positive outcome. Anyone who  claims that their presence in the room, or around the events, was the reason why things worked out  the way it  did, is politely said talking bollops.

The problem is it sometimes hard to distinguish between the bollop artists  and those who really did make the change happen. How can a new client, donor, journalist or curious individual find out the truth? I think there are two easy tests.

I think it is useful to lay these two tests out because, as with a lawyer, a client does not necessarily really know what they are buying. There is no reason why the client needs to be conned by a snake oil salesman promising mysterious political cures with modern day elixirs.

2 easy ways to find out if you are dealing with a snake oil salesman

One, is just asking some of the key decision-makers who were intimately involved in the law the campaign was seeking to influence. Ask them who had the greatest influence, who helped change the law, and which organisation/organisations have the most positive and negative influence on the final outcome. I found asking a variant of this question to MEP rapporteurs,  Commission Cabinet leads, and Presidency leads, will usually give you the right answer.

Second,  you should also  ask for draft copies of the draft bill, amendment, or  pivotal legislative report that  the person who claims to have had a key role in drafting. You can then match their text up with the final law. If they match you know you’ve found a one, that rare breed of lobbyist whose actions lead to constructive political, legislative, and policy change. Of course, if they don’t match up, you know you have just met one of the many modern day snake oil sellers.

As a rule of thumb, I think that around 10% of the lobbyists/campaigners around will deliver their clients, cause or interest a positive change. The vast majority are happier dealing in reportage and after the event victory are mine speeches. My advice, save yourself a lot of expense and pain, and ask those questions before hand.

Further Reading

John W. Kingdon’s definitive “Agendas, Alternatives and Public Policies” and Richard E. Cohen’s “Washington at Work“, look at this issue in more detail.

How to know if a campaign will succeed before it has even started

People think that successful NGO political campaigns are hard. I disagree.  I think success leaves clues. I know  it is possible to chunk down why campaigns work. I have taken a go by preparing a checklist.

I have been working on NGO and political campaigns for over 30 years. Over those years I have worked on campaigns that I realise, in hindsight, were doomed to fail. Those failed campaigns provide valuable learning.  I am always aware that the majorities of campaigns don’t get anyway. Scare time and resources are poured away at the start, knowing that is now chance of success.

Read this

If you are serious about winning you should have read Chris Rose’s two book:

How to win campaigns

What makes people tick


  1. Is there a plan or are you winging it
  2. Are you speaking to the people making the real decisions
  3. Social Network Analysis
  4. Evidence
  5. Failure leaves clues
  6. What influences the people making the real decisions
  7. Peer vindication
  8. Do you have a public champion
  9. Do you speak their(s) language (s)
  10. Can you vary your language
  11.  Are you in the right place at the right time speaking to right people
  12. Can you make your campaign simple to understand
  13.  Can your campaign be picked up in the press  can you simplify it
  14.  Can your story be picked up from the National Geographic, the Economist – Can you make interservice so interesting it gets covered by the FT?
  15.  Do you have people who can run a campaign or do they just like  to play and really want to be scientists
  16.  Do you have campaign funding that is not tied up in staffing
  17. Do you really want to win or do you want to convert people
  18.  Would you mind GoProing the campaign

Is there a plan or are you winging it

I think there is an easy way to discover from day 1 if a campaign is going to succeed. It is really simple.  Just ask for the campaign plan. The plan will explain in clear  and plain words how the campaign goal – which will be clear and explicit – will be brought about. It will explain the steps, actions, who is doing what, how much each step will cost, the chances of success, the contingency, who the decision makers are, what their positions are today, what is the feasibility of changing their position, and how you’ll help bring that change about. It will have an annex of the contacts details of the people you will need to meet, influence, and persuade during the campaign. It will lay out your case in plain English. It will  provide a rebuttal and  your counter to what your many opponents are going to say.

If you don’t have this, please spare your members, donors and family. You are winging it, and it is best that you don’t go forward.

Are you speaking to the people making the real decisions

Each stage in a political decision has different actors. On an EU wide campaign, I guesstimate this be around 300-500 people.

You need to know who these people are for each stage. You need to have access to them, know their contact details, and how to reach them.

I have learned that too often think that speaking to their friends is enough. Greens often think that if Green MEPs are on side, that is all they need, and some industry think that if the ECR back them, they are home and dry. They are both very wrong.

At different stages, different people are more important than others. Desk officers, ministerial political advisers, ministers and Commissioners all have an important role to play at different stages.

You need to know, preferably in advance, who really makes the key decisions at each step. They’ll change. In some countries, the official with the innocuous title, will be the go to man who the minister or prime minister defers to. The trick is knowing who.

Social Network Analysis

Chris Rose in “What Makes People Tick” shows a process to understand how  Settlers, Prospectors and Pioneers look at the world. Each group looks at the world differently.

Very successful campaigns use language to appeal to each of these three groups simultaneously. Most campaigns just use their own script to speaks to mainly to themselves. It is not very persuasive beyond people who were already supporting them.


Do you have independent evidence to support you case? I think the R&D is the most vital, yet overlooked part of campaign development. Most campaigns want to skip this part.

I have seen what may have looked at first glance to be a great campaign to falter after the evidence was assembled.

Personally, I think there is an advantage to out-source this part. A lot of people get attached to ideas and are reluctant to let them go, even if there is no evidence to support it.

Failure leaves clues

I have been amazed at how common it is for people persist in the idea  that even though what they last time did not work, and often was a miserable failure, this time it will work. I have found this to always be wrong.

In previous work,  I have found people intervening at the wrong time, or not understanding the real process they were dealing with. I’ve found out that when people claim that decisions are based on science, they hardly ever are.

If something has not worked, take an honest look at why it has not worked, and change your game plan.

What influences the people making the real decisions

If you really want to win, find out what will influence the people who are making the real decisions. If it is Papal announcement, go with it, if it an endorsement in a little read political magazine, have it placed.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that what is important for you is important for them. President Sarkozy intervened in the CITES listing of Blue Fin Tuna not because of any new-found interest in fisheries conservation. When he learned of the link between Blue Fin Tuna and the Marseille mafia his interest was piqued when he read of it in his morning newspaper, and he stepped in and changed France’s position.

Peer vindication

If you are going to commission a report, use the same expert that your target audience use.  To put it simply, use the experts the government you are looking to influence use.

The same goes for  super experts. Why spend a fortune on a study that no-one will read when a short review by Cass Sunstein or Vaclav Smil will do the job for you.

For some reason that my republican brain does not understand, a Royal intervening on the issue seems to push some people’s buttons.

Do you have a public champion

If you are running a campaign a lot of the time try to get a front man. Richard Leakey, David Attenborough, Paul McCartney will open doors you thought were closed to you.

Semi naked celebrities being photographed with endangered fish really does wonders. Why, I don’t know but I know celebrities work, so use them if you can.

Do you speak their(s) language (s)

Different key decision makers will need you to make your case in words that they understand. I am not talking about whether you can speak in french, english or german. I refer to the depth of insight and understanding you bring to the table, and the ability to interact in a depth of clarity and understanding that all players understand.

I know of a more than a few officials who their hierarchy and political leadership leave alone because they defer all decisions to those officials. The way to penetrate that invincibility is to be able to discuss the issue from technical expert, TV interviewer, person in the street, Commissioner and Minister in words that each understands.

Few campaigners seem bothered doing that. They prefer speaking some ancient gibberish – in particular around MSY – and act like ancient monks guarding the secret Latin texts.If your campaigners are like the ancient monks, change them, or stop your campaign.

Are you in the right place at the right time speaking to right people

For me I have seen too many campaigns fail because people were stuck in internal meetings, usually sapping the will to live with power points. Politicians, civil servants, and press calls are ignored whilst the “vital” work of internal meetings and self talk goes on.

Campaigns are about hustling to get to closer to the end goal. You can discover very early on in a campaign if it will work. If 80% of the time is spent on outward facing work you have a good chance.  If, which is normal, 80% is internal belly button gazing exercises, close the campaign down today.

Can you make your campaign simple to understand

I have spent a long time working with scientific issues. I get nervous when people say that because it is usually a code word to mean total gibberish is about to be spoken.

I think it is lazy. Complex issues can be made clear and even simple to understand. It is hard work but it is possible.

I don’t mean simplistic. If you are serious about your campaign, and craft, you’ll spend a lot of time developing a clear script for your target audiences. You’ll remember that metaphors and analogies have been around for a few thousand years to help communicate difficult issues.

As one Cabinet  member said to me once: I realised that someone new had started when the letter they received had now equations in and it made sense to him and the Commissioner.

Can your campaign be picked up in the press  can you simplify it

I once found that the Sunday Times was less interested in the bushmeat crisis on great apes but the idea that Ebola was coming into Heathrow appealed to them.  The following story led to flurry of phone calls on Monday and over a short period of time a lot of political progress.

Can your story be picked up from the National Geographic, the Economist – Can you make interservice so interesting it gets covered by the FT?

I have found that three best places to get picked up on are (1) National Geographic, (2) the Economist (3) the FT.

They all take a lot of effort and the story has to be exclusive. The investment always pays off. The annoyance of the then fisheries commissioner having his opposition to CITES listing of the Blue Fin Tuna being played out in the FT was palatable. More useful was Commissioners who followed the issue in the FT and backed Environment Commissioner Dimas. The FT and the Economist are the papers of record in Europe and the democratic world.

Do you have people who can run a campaign or do they just like  to play and really want to be scientists

I now step on to dangerous territory. If I were going to trial, I would want the very best team of lawyers I could afford. I’d want to know their track record of success and failures. I don’t mind trainees on the team, but I guess that the recent graduate was not my advocate in court and had their work supervised by an experienced hand.

I’d be shocked to learn that my lawyer was actually not a lawyer and was either a scientist who liked to pretend to be a lawyer,  or a recent political science graduate temping as a paralegal.

If you change the word “lawyer” for “campaigner” or “lobbyist” you get the picture.

Too often, inexperienced or science driven staff want to get involved in campaigning. The skill set is different. Don’t allow them.

 Do you have campaign funding that is not tied up in staffing

If 60% or more of the campaign funding is tied up in staff costs be careful. Too many campaign based organisations spend time fund-raising to pay high fixed costs, which are often staff costs. If fixed costs are 80% in an organisation, they will be focused on feeding the machine and not winning vital campaigns.

50% fixed costs and 50% discretionary costs sounds like a more rational approach.

Do you really want to win or do you want to convert people

For me campaigns are about winning the issue at hand. I’ve worked with political interests that I rather would not, but working together, have brought about a political alignment that helps wins votes and bring laws onto the statute books.

Some people want to switch people to supporting their view of the world. I think that conversion rather than collaboration is a very high risk game. And, unless you are very honest with whose paying for the campaign, should not be tried.

 Would you mind GoProing the campaign

I spent a year of my life being followed around by Channel 4 TV who were making a documentary on how Brussels works. After that, I have taken the view that I don’t have an issue with what I doing being live screened, in what would perhaps be the most boring documentary ever.

But, I think it vital that donors and clients to know where their resources are going. Now, whilst a go-pro camera may be off-putting, software like Slack, and others, allows a donor/client to check in 24/7/365 to see how their  investment is doing.Donors should use it.

Rules for Revolutionaries: How Big Organizing Can Change Everything (2016)

Rules for Revolutionaries: How Big Organizing Can Change Everything by Becky Bond, Zack Exley

Hove did Senator Bernie Sanders, a self declared left wing political activist, nearly win the Democratic Party nomination for Presidential Candidate.

Two key staffers lift up the bonnet and give you a glimpse of how it nearly happened.

He took on Hilary Clinton and nearly won. The establishment in the Democratic Party had a fright.





How he did it shows you how technology offers any cause, with enough passionate volunteers, the way to mount very powerful campaigns quickly and effectively.

You can take many things away from this book. In this review I touch on three.

Saul Alinsky for the 21st Century

First, this book is a homage to Saul Alinsky and his 1971 classic “Rules for Radicals”. This is the updated version for the 21st century.

The Power of Volunteers

Second, it shows how a volunteer based organization can be harnessed to run a mass campaign.

Volunteers are your most powerful voices. The authors wonder aloud at the end that if they had empowered their volunteers earlier on and more they could have done far better.

As the authors put it “No revolution has ever been launched with paid mercenaries and a branding agency”. I hate to admit it, it is true.

Tapping into the genuine passion of volunteers to deliver the campaign is the key lesson from the book.

How Software can help you speak with people 

Third, chapter 21 – Put Consumer Software at the Center – gives an insight into the technology the campaign used. It is being worth buying the book alone for this chapter.

They show how technology and volunteers can raise large sums of money from small donations. Sanders raised $234.3 million from 2.8 million individual small donations.

The campaign used software, adapted it with coders, and unleashed it.  The on the shelf software covered:

  • peer to peer texting – com
  • Google docs
  • Webcast events
  • virtual call center software solution marketed largely to debt collectors
  • CRM software – Customer Relationship Management

This array of software helped keep email to a minimum. Email is the curse of any campaign or organization. It is second only to to the evils of powerpoint.


Speak to People 

But, in this campaign technology was used to help people to meet and speak with people. As the authors put it “Getting on the phone is a skill that’s mostly missing from the digital organizer’s repertoire even as phone technology is being revolutionized by new tools and opportunities in the era of big organizing”.

They used technology to make it easier for volunteers to speak over the phone or in person to voters. Most technologists think that email/tweets/Facebook likes somehow lead to people acting. They don’t. Technology is a means for pre-framing, framing, and speaking to real living people via the wonder of the spoken word. Making that connection is usually the missing link. Sanders campaign realized winning needs people to speak to people.

Making the Revolution Easier

The authors are now helping other progressive causes use these techniques to make the revolution easier to bring about – you can find out more