Lobbying is a legitimate part of community communications but often it can look remarkably similar to what public relations professionals do. Many large Australian PR agencies offer ‘government relations’ among their services.
The Australian Government Register of Lobbyists lists many of Australia’s largest PR firms as well as many smaller outfits. From time to time the media scrutinises the actions of lobbyists in particular issues but the fact a (registered) PR professional can approach a government minister or senior bureaucrat on behalf of a client is unquestioned.
The conventional definition of lobbying is making direct contact with a government official or elected representative to influence policy. The often used PR strategy of advocating for a change by organising grassroots campaigns is specifically excluded from our definition of “lobbying activities.”
Trouble in New York
Contrast this with what is happening in New York where lobbying is big business. 5,602 registered lobbyists represent nearly 3500 clients and in the first half of 2015 spent $131 million on lobbying activities.
Early this year the New York State Joint Commission on Public Ethics issued an advisory about who needs to register as a lobbyist to operate in that State. And it has alarmed PRs in that part of the world.
At issue is not direct lobbying of public officials but a new Commission ruling. It seems the definition of lobbying has been broadened to include PR and other consultants involved in grassroots campaigns on behalf of their clients. This means those involved in arranging events, media relations, social media efforts, letter writing campaigns and all the other tactics agencies typically use to draw public attention to an issue and encourage people to influence their legislators and officials.
The Commission argues times have changed and better oversight is needed to ensure public confidence in government administration. This comes as the lobbying industry has blown out and voters are increasingly cynical about special interest dollars driving politics.
PR fights back
PR professionals, led by the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), are fighting back. They maintain the Commission has overreached and the ruling will have a “chilling effect” on free and clear lines of necessary public communication. Clients would need to declare expenses for PR campaigns related to legislation and rule making, and PR agencies would have to report expenditures over $5000 on local and grassroots efforts on behalf of clients.
The new disclosure requirements could spell the end for astroturfing: the practice of creating artificial community movements to mask special interests who ‘call the shots’ from the background. That’s plainly unethical but it could also stifle working on behalf of a sincere client to inform the public about a topic of concern.
Tipping the balance
The PRSA wants the Commission to return to ensuring ethical compliance between government officials and true lobbyists. And there is no doubt the Commission’s rulings are open to misunderstanding. It remains to be seen where the balance lies between public interest and industry practice.