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'Lobbyist' not curse word to all influencers

Association of Government Relations Professionals should have kept old name, some say

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These days, Nick Allard conjures visions of Shakespeare's Juliet when he talks of lobbyists.

"A rose by any other name would smell as sweet — or foul," says Allard, the dean of the Brooklyn Law School and a partner at Patton Boggs, a Washington, D.C.-based law and lobbying firm.

It should come as little surprise, then, that Allard is no fan of the American League of Lobbyists' decision last month to change its name to the Association of Government Relations Professionals.

He's not alone. 

"If K Street wants lobbyists to be called government relations professionals, then that's exactly the kind of newspeak that made people distrust lobbyists in the first place," Oliver Ruff, a New York-based lobbyist, wrote this week in a LinkedIn forum for lobbying firms.

And count Howard Marlowe, former president of the American League of Lobbyists, among the dissenters.

"There are already associations for public relations consultants, grassroots consultants, political intelligence consultants and much more," said Marlowe, the longtime leader of the Marlowe & Company boutique lobbying firm. "We no longer have a professional association ... for championing changes to lobbying disclosure and campaign finance laws, nor do we have one for defending lobbyists."

Not so, says Monte Ward, current president of the newly renamed Association of Government Relations Professionals.

Ward insists the organization will still offer lobbying education programs and advocate for the profession that, at the national level, has of late witnessed its registered ranks and income dwindle

He notes the association's new name comes with a new tagline, too: "Voice of the lobbying, public policy and advocacy professions."

The Association of Government Relations Professionals is the largest of its kind in the nation, although only a small fraction of the nation's roughly 12,000 registered federal lobbyists are members. 

"Our profession is changing, and we're wearing different and multiple hats," Ward says. "Our members — they want an association who reflects who they are. This is something we should have done a long time ago."

What few lobbyists will deny is the "lobbyist" has an image problem. Thank high-profile scandals and ethical rows for painting lobbyists as unscrupulous hacks or conniving arm-twisters — not as principled advocates for worthy clients, exercising their constitutional right to petition their government for a redress of grievances.

As one recent poll commissioned by a campaign finance reform advocacy group found, about 83 percent of Americans believe lobbyists wield too much influence over the country’s government.

At the Center for Public Integrity's behest, Peter Sokolowski, editor at large for Merriam-Webster, scoured his language database to determine how "lobbyist" is most often used in present-day English.

While most references are neutral, he said, "it's clear that there are some negative associations with 'lobbyist.'" 

Among the passages about lobbyists Sokolowski cites from the Corpus of Contemporary American English:

  • "He had the look of a lobbyist, smelled strongly of cologne."
  • " ... you were nothing but an errand boy for your fat cat lobbyist friends ... "
  • " ... has ceased to be a scientist and really is no better than a shill or lobbyist for a special interest."
  • "Every lying executive, every filthy lobbyist, every sold politician."

Sokolowski also mentioned a BBC news report he recently heard where an Israeli government official, who's pressing U.S. lawmakers on issues related to Iran, bristled at the notion that he was engaging in "lobbying." (Start the audio clip at the 6:45 mark.)

Bupkis, says Allard.

"Lobbyists can be a pain in the ass, but they're needed because they're effective," he said. "I'm a lobbyist, and I'm proud of it. I'd embrace and celebrate being a lobbyist."