The Center for Public Integrity recently reported on how some trade associations were turning to public relations and advertising instead of lobbying to influence legislators. They point to the lack of disclosure rules and expansive outreach as factors in this shift. While these groups still spent money on lobbying, public relations and communications are receiving more resources and attention.
As an association lobbyist, it raises some interesting questions. First, is this the beginning of the end of lobbying? The article tries to tie in the rise of PR campaigns with the decline of lobbying expenditures. However, it’s too simple of an explanation. It doesn’t account for those who were once lobbyists, but no longer fit the definition and doesn’t have to register. Second, is what PR companies doing count as lobbying? Sure, the primary audience for these PR firms is the public. However, it’s abundantly clear that the real targets for their outreach are those Members of Congress with jurisdiction over their client’s issues. Third, what does this mean for the lobbyist? I think those of us who continue to advocate without developing any communications expertise run the risk of becoming useless. If I can’t articulate my point to the legislative director, my board chair and the family down the street, my association will turn to someone who can.
Will PR campaigns replace lobbying? I don’t think so. It remains an important function for many associations. However, they should consider public relations when putting together an advocacy strategy.