Lobbying: sorting method from madness

In response to the question, “Is lobbying the dirty side of PR?“, passivity is the danger that public relations cannot afford when involved in lobbying. If we are only advocates, we risk marginalizing ourselves with clients, media and thoughts, and opponents. Beyond advocacy, there are two additional roles that not only increase our value, but also help us keep perspective. These are:

  • Monitoring and interpreting for clients the strong and valid points made by our “opponents”
  • Actually bringing various parties together in a dialogue to determine and implement common interests.

Lobbying as public relations power lifter

Nevertheless, these are treacherous times. Some interests have been allowed if not encouraged to run roughshod over everyone in their way.  Since the time of Adam Smith, some interests ballyhoo the importance of “free markets” while using money and connections to seek the use of coercive government power to favor their businesses or industries.  The recent recession that we’re still struggling with illustrates something even worse: individuals and managements who put personal benefit ahead of even shareholders and customers.

[This is a guest post by thought leadership, strategic communication and management consultant expert, Warren Levy*.]

However, I’m not sure how indicting the entire category of lobbying helps us out of the fixes we’re in.

Of course, lobbyists and the public relations practitioners who support them are self-centered – that’s their role as advocates. Good lobbyists are for-hire to provide information, point of view, and, yes, campaign finance.

Yet, when money and influence induce governments to favor a powerful few, the tough truth is that most lobbyists who represent competing or dependent interests get screwed along with the public.

Multiple sides, muddling processes

During my career I’ve supported numerous lobbying and issues campaigns. I didn’t always think my “side” was advocating the best policy, but then I didn’t think opponents were either. There aren’t always bright lines separating sides. And, the sides themselves have sides. There’s much muddling through in legislative and regulatory processes.

Yet, I’ve never felt morally compromised. (Disappointed? Yes!) That’s true despite working for industries dealing with dramatic controversies.

When representing “pariah” industries, I often found that public, and even thought-leader opinion was under-informed and oversimplified. Most issues I’ve dealt with weren’t black or white. Issues worth debating usually are about clashes of values; multiple competing interests all make reasonable cases.

Usually, I didn’t need to win the argument. Often it’s enough to show how grey an issue truly is, and that demonizing my client is neither correct nor productive.

Today, for instance, pharmaceutical manufacturers are often portrayed as pariahs. And, at least in the United States, these manufacturers’ lobbyists do often appear heavy-handed. They also do an incredibly poor job of public education. That’s baffling, frankly. Demonizing the industry usually depends on grossly oversimplifying really complicated situations, a blow that good advocates should be able at least to soften.

Now, I can’t and won’t defend everything that industry does. And, I have little patience for ameliorative things the industry could, but often doesn’t do.

Yet, I also have no difficulty finding plenty of room for confident, full-throated advocacy on the industry’s behalf. That includes talking about valuable, often difficult things the industry does do with little or no recognition.

The best advocates add two additional roles

My experience convinces me that passivity is the danger for public relations support for lobbying. Years ago, I co-authored a presentation and article about the marriage of lobbying and public relations. We argued that practitioners need to practice two additional roles beyond advocacy, both of which serve as a kind of moral prophylaxis:

  • Interpreter
  • Mediator.

The interpreter role often is overlooked. In order to do our jobs well, we constantly need to be monitoring the external environment with open-minded honesty. Otherwise, we can’t:

  • frame our point of view credibly, sustainably and persuasively
  • counsel our clients by interpreting for them when opponents make good points.

When “opponents” make really good points, it’s our responsibility to try to make sure our “side” understands why they have a good point and what that might mean for our advocacy.

The mediator role is the most difficult. Sometimes we get so lost in our own arguments that we don’t see the potential for collaboration.

Practitioners who are good at advocating and interpreting have frequent chances to create situations that get all “sides” around a table to find ways that serve everyone’s interests. If you and your clients have the guts, that often produces really great moments in which unusual progress is possible. I’ve organized some meetings that have done just that (and lobbyists were often included!).

The danger: what can get lost

What has been most disappointing to me isn’t the blustering, name-calling and controversy. It is that too often underlying problems we all should be focusing on get lost in the choosing up of sides. I remember a political cartoon from the 1970s. It pictured a crowd of advocates of all persuasions. They were standing around holding placards aloft. Each promoted a particular point of view.

In their midst, quite unseen and ignored, a young boy held up his placard, “I am lost.”

What do you think of Warren’s assertion that PR and lobbying practitioners should be self-centred? Conversely, he suggests that the best lobbyists bring different points of view to the table – is that happening in the real world? Should it be something that, at the very least, lobbyists and PR communication professionals aspire to achieve? Come to that, is aspiring good for anything if we fail to achieve those aspirations?

*Warren Levy is president of Compelling Meetings, a consulting company with a particular expertise in helping executives and organisations enable more and better interaction through face-to-face meetings to manage issues, crisis and controversy, executive and strategy transition, idea generation, and collaboration to identify and implement creative solutions to complex challenges.  He can be contacted at Warren.Levy@compellingmeetings.com

Is lobbying the dirty side of PR?

Is lobbying where we hide the less savoury and morally questionable side of what our public relations communication discipline involves? Secret backroom conversations. Non-promoted initiatives. Unwritten agreements taken as writ. Clearly, there is plenty about lobbying that won’t pay(off) for it to be articulated.

Public relations lobbying and politics

And the pay(off)?

  • Legislation
  • Regulation
  • More often than not…cold, hard and maybe even blood-stained money.

I don’t know about you, but there is something sleazy about lobbying. No matter how you scrub it, rinse it, clean it: the spin is not good. Ironically, of course, lobbying is where spin is king.

If best practice public relations is thought by many to have transparency as a defining characteristic, then lobbying is clearly the cloak and dagger exception to the rule.

So what of major Australian companies and industries that, in recent times, have resorted to big splash large scale broad reach media campaigns to achieve the aim that backroom bonhomie and Masonic palm-tickling handshakes have failed to hit the G-spot with?

Advertising not PR for lobbying impact

An interesting article in The Sydney Morning Herald, on the topic of lobbying, discusses how advertising pays when it comes to lobbying, prompted some thoughts:

  • The big industries hiring lobbyists are getting frustrated
  • It is virtually a hung parliament in our federal government and this makes it a great time to whip out the advertising option, touching up the pressure points
  • Is it the dinosaurs, unable to understand the possibilities of social media that are grasping at the advertising straw?
  • Advertising in such broad reach media outlets has got to be an unsophisticated way to reach target audiences
  • The examples of the Obama campaign and GetUp! have not changed the way in which some industries and companies are approaching the public groundswell dimension of lobbying. Is social media only for community grassroots initiatives when it comes to lobbying, not for big business?

The last point makes me wonder, is the lobbying sub-set of PR somewhat of a dinosaur itself?

By integrating non-backroom boys-and-their-toys mechanisms lobbyists need to engage specialists in disciplines such as social media they are not proficient in. This is not an issue for the big agencies that have partner agencies or divisions that possess this competency, but for lobbying specialist agencies, this means sharing the budget around. Not something I’d imagine many would want to do.

A large chunk of lobbyists are ex-politicians and journalists themselves. Trustworthy? Maybe. Effective at what they are seeking to achieve? Quite probably. Social media literate and advocates? Hmmmm, I sort of doubt it.

The subtleties of lobbying are pretty acute. It takes a very sharp mind to get the communication strategy right. Intellect is not a characteristic lacking in good lobbyists. Nor is lack of connections. Mates count big time in this field (hence the heft ex-politicians and journalists wield in this twilight game).

PR professionals in the moral spotlight

I’ve worked on the fringe of lobbying, never actually in the thick of it. I’ve been fortunate in that I have not been asked to compromise myself by working on certain clients, for which I am grateful. I wonder how often that occurs in lobbyist firms?

It’s an exposed position to locate yourself vocationally if you don’t have a flexible approach to morality, I would have thought.

Most money on lobbying is spent by big business. If you leave yourself open to working in this sector it would seem inevitable that morally questionable industries are going to dominate your client list. The SMH article noted above flags cigarettes and poker machines, for instance.

There must be a buzz going around the SMH when it comes to lobbying of late. Their erudite and inordinately credible economics editor, Ross Gittins, also recently wrote on the topic. Gittins takes a kick at the self-serving approach lobbyists take to their often unsavoury tasks.

Like many industries, lobbyists frequently inhabit a questionable moral position. Business, Gittins argues, isn’t unknown to put its own sense of wellbeing far in front of society’s. “Businesses on the make invariably seek to pressure governments by putting the frighteners on the public,” he says. This means the production and presentation of statistics, analysis and arguments that are based on thin and ‘spinnable’ data that you wouldn’t call sturdy (unless you paid for the analysis, of course).

Can public relations theory underpin lobbying for social good?

As I have argued countless times before, public relations communications has an opportunity to positively influence big business’s self-serving and self-obsessed approach for the good, encouraging it to take a more society-centric view of its activities and its impacts.

But in my experience, it will not be the lobbying sector we can count on. A sad and sickening dimension of lobbying is that it is entirely self-centred. It does not care for people/stakeholders outside the scope of what can help fatten up its hip pocket.

How I would love to hear of lobbyists who have advocated that organisations or industries take a perspective and adapt their behaviour so that it is aligned with what is best for society. Yeah, I know, dream on.

Have you been involved in lobbying campaigns that have a morally sound of questionable dimension? Where does the thrill lie in lobbying? What can lobbying do for the good of society and can it actually prompt an organisation to become more morally aligned to society? Should business try to lead in this regards, or simply be happy complying with the law?

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