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The Public Relations of Lobbying

Influence is the common denominator between public relations and lobbying. One influences opinion, and the other, government.

While these disciplines sometimes work in tandem, they are separate and distinct. In New York, however, that may not be the case. The New York State Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) earlier this year issued an advisory opinion that expands the definition of lobbying to include aspects of public relations.

The lobby of the House of Commons. Painting 1886 by Liborio Prosperi.

The lobby of the House of Commons. Painting 1886 by Liborio Prosperi.

Whoa nelly, says the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), the nation’s largest and foremost membership organization for public relations and communication professionals, which blasted JCOPE in a statement, saying the opinion “will lead to more confusion as to what lobbying is, circumvention based on the ambiguous standards articulated, and less trust in government.”

While the current advisory opinion is being challenged in court, JCOPE’s new interpretation of the New York State Lobbying Act, ambiguous as it may be, says consultants engaged in “direct” or “grass roots” lobbying on behalf of a client must comply. Believe it or not, this includes traditional PR tactics, such as message development, drafting press releases and contacting media.

The definition of a lobbyist usually revolves around compensation. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, there are more than 50 versions of lobbying laws in states and territories,  ranging from definitions of lobbyists to payment thresholds for compensation or reimbursements.  New York’s current threshold is $5K annually.

Excluding media was probably a good “PR play” by JCOPE, no pun intended. Just think of how top-tier outlets like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal and hundreds of others would react if they had to register as “lobbyists?” It also would be interesting to learn how a reporter would feel if he or she was included in a PR firm’s “disclosure” for its “lobbying” activities.

The reality is media outlets frequently meet with public officials. But should a person who simply set up a meeting between a client and an editorial board qualify as a lobbyist? Common sense says no. The difference is that editorial boards have their own guidelines and choose what they cover or report on. Lobbyists, on the other hand, go directly to the source to sway opinion.

PR practitioners basically are connecting the dots, middlemen so to speak. Aside from helping point stakeholders to pertinent information, or connecting people with similar or disparate points of view, we help clients define messages and better articulate their narratives. But it’s always the client’s message, never that of a PR firm.

– George Medici, gmedici@pondel.com

PondelWilkinson Wins Two PRism Awards

PRism Awards

 
PondelWilkinson received two PRism awards this week at the 48th Annual Public Relations Society of America – Los Angeles chapter awards show.  The awards recognize reputation/brand management in investor relations for Market Leader, Inc. (Nasdaq: LEDR), a provider of online technology and marketing solutions for real estate professionals, and digital PR tactics/webcasts for Physician Therapeutics, a division of Targeted Medical Pharma, Inc., which is a specialty pharmaceutical company that develops and sells prescription medical foods for the treatment of chronic disease.
 
 

The Real Deal on Public Relations

New York Times advertising columnist Stuart Elliott may finally have given the public
relations industry some needed street cred. His November 20th bylined article, “Redefining Public Relations in the Age of Social Media,” discussed why the Public Relations Society of America has embarked on its own campaign to change the definition of “public relations.”
 
This blogger over the years has had several conversations with Stuart about the importance of public relations (PR) long before this recent column, prompting the need for more coverage on the industry since it has become more integral to the marketing efforts of brands and organizations.
 
The existing definition, “public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other,” has been around for nearly 30 years.  You’d be surprised at a few of the suggested changes being floated around, some worse than others.
 
Quite frankly, nothing has changed.  Public relations still helps organizations “talk” to their constituencies.  The only real change is the way these organizations communicate with key audiences since the rise of the Internet.  Social media is just a new vehicle or another medium, whether it’s a brand interacting with consumers, a business-to-business organization talking with customers or even a publicly traded company communicating with investors.
 
All this chatter about a definition change ironically is good publicity for public relations, which has gotten a bad rap now and then.  The word “spin” has a negative connation and often is incorrectly used to help explain PR, which is only a small component of the broader discipline, although there may be no denying some truth to the negative sentiment.
 
Explaining public relations to those that don’t really understand it always has been a challenge, whether educating a family member or even a new business prospect. It’s very complicated to say the least and probably more art than science, not to mention nerve-racking. Coincidentally, public relations continually ranks high in surveys about the most stressful careers.
 
One crude yet effective way to explain public relations is to compare it to advertising.  Advertising is an organization talking about itself and public relations is someone else talking about that organization.  A client once said that people will remember an article in print or online but very rarely recall the ad next to it.
 
Selling PR to prospective clients may be a little easier as more people engage in the discussion about a definition change. The reality however is that people are talking about PR and for the public relations industry that’s a job well done.

 

George Medici, gmedici@pondel.com