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.
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:
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