Lobbying

Lobbying is the act of promoting an organization’s agenda to decision makers, usually represented by government, in order to influence a specific reform. The term is almost exclusively associated with politics and public policymaking, and in corporate settings is often referred to as government relations. Any individual who attempts to manipulate public policy is a lobbyist; however, the term is generally reserved for individuals whose primary employment function is influencing public administration.(1) These professionals are often employed by interest groups, trade associations, corporations or unions; however, many professional lobbyists work for pubic relations or government relations firms.

Professional lobbyists predominantly represent highly regulated sectors such as health care, natural resource development and the communications industry. Lobbying is frequently divided into two sub-groups:


  • Direct Lobbying: Lobbying that involves direct contact between an organization, or their representatives, and government decision makers.

  • Indirect Lobbying: Lobbying that involves efforts to shape, mobilize, and enlist public opinion, often through the media, in order to influence the policies or priorities of government.(2)

Lobbying in Canada
Lobbying has been a part of Canadian politics for hundreds of years. The Lobbying Act, which requires lobbyists to register their identity with the federal government, is part of the Government of Canada's effort to ensure lobbying activities directed at federal officials and public employees are conducted in a transparent and ethical manner. The Act is enforced by the Commissioner of Lobbying, an Officer of Parliament. It recognizes three categories of lobbyists: consultant lobbyists; in-house lobbyists for corporations; and in-house lobbyists for organizations (typically non-profit organizations). Many provincial and municipal governments have complimentary legislation. Critics of the registration process suggest the practice allows professional lobbyists to monitor their competitors and to identify potential clients.(3)

The Federal government has developed a Lobbyists’ Code of Conduct providing guidance about a variety of topics including the appropriate conduct when lobbying public officials, and direction on appropriate relationships with other lobbyists. While compliance of the Code is voluntary, the Government enforces penalties for breaches of the Act which include fines and possible jail time.(4)

Functions of Lobbying

Lobbying is used to accomplish a number of goals including acquiring government contracts, grants and licenses; accessing natural resources; and influencing policy changes. Lobbyists are frequently divided into four categories:

  • Contact Specialists: Who use personal connections with politicians and government officials to influence reform.

  • Process Specialists: Who provide strategic advice on government policy, processes and the bureaucracy.

  • Policy Specialists: Who are content experts on specific areas of public policy, legislation or government strategy.

  • Communications Specialists: Who design public relations, polling and issue management campaigns and communicate complicated issues to various publics.(5)

Grassroots and Grasstops Lobbying
Grassroots lobbying is a communications technique that mobilizes the public to communicate with policymakers by utilizing tactics such as mass letter writing, telephone calls to public office holders, public demonstrations and petitions. Grasstops lobbying differs from grassroots lobbying in that it mobilizes an elite group of supporters, such as prominent local citizens, to champion issues. John Davies is a self-described premier grassroots consultant and the architect of the “not in my backyard” campaign. He has been credited with popularizing grassroots lobbying.(6)

Some government relations experts suggest grassroots and grasstops lobbying are more effective than traditional lobbying. The practice, however, is controversial as policymakers are often unaware they are being lobbied. Artificially created grassroots and grasstops campaigns are referred to as astroturf.(7)

Tarnished History

Lobbying has a long history of publicized ethical lapses, and the activities of lobbyists often generate public suspicion and are sometimes categorized as propaganda. Consequently, many companies and politicians attempt to distance themselves from lobbyists. President-elect Barack Obama purposefully distanced himself from lobby groupsduring his campaign for the Presidency. Obama publicly promised not to accept contributions from lobby groups, and returned over $50,000 in donations from federal lobbyists.

The 2006 criminal case against Jack Abramoff, a former lobbyist for two international law firms who plead guilty to fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe public officials, generated extensive media coverage and highlighted the transgressions often associated with lobbying. The case inspired a national public opinion poll by CBS News and the New York Times, which indicated almost 80% of registered voters believe lobbyists regularly bribe members of Congress. Critics of the lobbying process suggest it provides organizations that posses financial means with an unfair advantage. Some fear government influence can be bought.(8)

Public Relations Research
While lobbying is an important component of public relations, it has been largely ignored by public relations scholars. Dr. Valerie Terry, an award-winning researcher and professor who specializes in lobbying, has written several articles on the topic and has conducted extensive research. Terry suggests public relations scholarship would benefit from a greater focus on lobbying, and specifically the impact lobbying has on an organizations reputation.(9)

Links
The Hill Times
Inside Ottawa
Office of the Commissioner of Lobbying of Canada


----
(1)/(2)Hale, G. (2006). Uneasy partnership: The politics and business of government in Canada. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press.
(3)Rush, M. (1994). Registering the lobbyists: Lessons in Canada. Political Studies, 6(3), 645-647.
(4)Commissioner of lobbying. Retrieved October 22, 2008, from http://www.ocl-cal.gc.ca/epic/site/lobbyist-lobbyiste1.nsf/en/home.
(5)Moore, S. (2002). A matter of substance. The Hill Times (online edition). Retrieved October 30, 2008, from www.thehilltimes.ca.
(6)/(7)Sharon, B. (1998). Public relations' role in manufacturing artificial grass roots coalitions. Public Relations Quarterly 43(2), 21-3.
(8)Lowery, D. & Gray, V. (1994). Do lobbying regulations influence lobbying registration? Social Science Quarterly, 75(2), 382-384.
(9)Terry, V. (2001). Lobbying: Fantasy, reality or both? A health care public policy case study. Journal of Public Affairs, 15, 266-280.