Government relations or public affairs is a form of public relations targeted at politicians and/or bureaucrats and aims to influence the passing and implementation of legislation and the setting of public policy. Lobbyists can influence decision-makers by making themselves useful to them as a reliable source of information, through being the conduit for donations and favours (referred to colloquially as ‘booze, blondes and bribes’) or as a result of past working relationships and friendships.
In the 1970s US public relations firms started to move into lobbying, which had previously been the province of Washington law firms.
In its publicity material Burson-Marsteller boasts that it can target decision-makers and ensure that they are “aware not only of the logic in a client’s point of view, but also the political power behind the client’s position.” (emphasis in original).
Lobbying and Public Relations
Lobbying and public relations are not separate activities. Generating community support can put pressure on an undecided politician. Robert Gray of Hill and Knowlton described how he would send his people to a politician’s home districts to generate public support that would influence their vote. “We can land in Topeka, Kansas, and in thirty minutes we’d be able to find and make contact with the key media people there: editors, talkback show producers, TV and radio news directors.” A series of newspaper editorials and statements by opinion leaders has an impact, even if the politician suspects it is generated by public relations.
Well placed ‘news’ stories in the right papers, such as the Washington Post, also influence Congress. Says one PR expert “It makes them aware of an issue. It sensitizes them to the importance of an issue, so when a PR person or lobbyists calls upon them, the Congressman knows he’s being called upon for something important enough to be in the newspaper.”
Another means of influencing a politician is described by John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton in their book Toxic Sludge is Good for You! is to “create an artificial bubble of peer influence surrounding the targeted politician, so that the ‘legislator will get the feel of total community support for an issue’.” This is done by hiring one of his friends or business colleagues, someone who is influential in the politician’s electorate with media contacts, to gather together a group of key business and community leaders well-connected to the politician. These people, chosen because they are sympathetic to the goals of the client for business or other reasons, then lobby the politician who gets the impression that anyone who is anyone must favour this outcome.
Alternatively, if a politician has been persuaded in some other way to vote in a corporation’s interests, s/he may still need to have some public support or at least seem to be acting in the public interest, rather than be seen to be voting on the basis of campaign donations. “You have to give your guy the ammunition to show the press that the issue he’s backing is inherently something the public—specifically your target’s constituents—wants” says Frank Mankiewicz, from Hill & Knowlton. He suggests the easiest way to do this is with a favourable poll. Grassroots organising can also achieve this.
And just as public relations is an important element of lobbying, lobbying is an increasingly important element of public relations.
“The real work today is done behind the scenes on issues,” says a former H&K executive. “You have people of substance going to regulators and assistant secretaries,” he explains. “Then you notify the press in advance that the government is taking a certain action, and why, and who you represent, and why your client deserved to have this regulation changed.
You make your client’s story a government story, showing how the government action--by now a quiet fait accompli--has not only helped your client, but is good for the people. That’s how your get the story out the right way in the media,” he says smiling...
One example of a large concerted public relations/lobbying campaign was that conducted by the Mexican Government and US businesses to get approval for the North American Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA. These groups spent well over $25 million to promote NAFTA “hiring a phalanx of Washington law firms, lobbyists, public relations companies and consultants” such as PR firm Burson Marsteller. They were aided by the conservative think tanks, the Business Roundtable, the National Association of Manufacturers, the Chamber of Commerce as well as major and regional media outlets. Opponents included environmental groups such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the Sierra Club, who were concerned that US corporations would move to Mexico to avoid US environmental regulations. However the opposition was never taken very seriously by the US government in the face of such well-financed and coordinated lobbying.
The role of the Wexler group (a PR firm in the Hill and Knowlton stable) in promoting free trade policy through creating and running business coalitions and front groups is covered in the section on free trade (here). Wexler also partnered with the The National Foreign Trade Council (NFTC) to form the front group USA*Engage to oppose sanctions being imposed on other nations.
Another example was the campaign waged against President Clinton’s health care plan by health insurance firms, conservative think tanks and others. In this case between $100 million and $300 million was spent opposing the reforms to an existing health care system which is one of the most inequitable and wasteful in the industrialised world. This was far more money than the total spent by all the presidential candidates in 1992 in the US (or in any previous year) and in many ways resembled a presidential campaign. It was spent on lobbyists, television advertisements and a massive grassroots effort which “generated more than 450,000 personal contacts with Congress--phone calls, visits or letters--more than a thousand for every member of the House.”
When environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa (pictured) and eight fellow Ogoni activists were hanged by the Nigerian government in 1995, the Nigerian government launched a public relations/lobbying campaign in the US to avoid sanctions being applied. One of the major issues the Ogonis were protesting was the environmental degradation caused by Shell Oil’s activities in their country which they claimed had ruined their land. Maurice Dawkins, a paid lobbyist for the Nigerian government, according to Ron Nixon in the Nation, played a key role in the formation and organisation of three US front groups formed to support the Nigerian government—the National Coalition for Fairness to Nigeria, the National Coalition for Fairness in African Policy and Americans for Democracy in Africa. These groups paid for ‘advertorials’ in key newspapers such as the New York Times and courted the black American press.