FleishmanHillard ranked ninth, according to the Center’s analysis. Its public relations and advertising clients included the American Petroleum Institute ($27.6 million) and CropLife America ($1.5 million), which represents the manufacturers of pesticides and agricultural chemicals.
The firm, which describes itself as being driven by “the power of true,” has consistently ranked within the top three of the world’s highest-paid public relations companies for the past five years, according to the World PR Report published by the Holmes Report. Its D.C. office is led by Kris Balderston, a former State Department official and deputy assistant to former President Bill Clinton.
Keeping the players straight in the advertising and public relations game is no easy task due to a series of massive mergers that have taken place over the past decade or so. GMMB, for example, is actually a subsidiary of FleishmanHillard, which is owned by the giant advertising and communications holding company Omnicom Media Group, based in New York City.
But most of the subsidiaries function under their own names.
Locust Street Group rounds out the top 10 firms for PR and advertising services. The Washington, D.C.-based agency earned $23.6 million in trade group money from 2008 through 2012, almost all of which came from America’s Health Insurance Plans. It’s unclear what exactly the agency did on the insurance group’s behalf — the firm’s founder, David Barnhart, declined to answer questions for this story — but Locust Street Group’s website says it builds “boots on the ground” coalitions and creates social media campaigns to help influence lawmakers.
“D.C. may have K Street with tons of lobbyists,” the firm’s slogan says, “but small towns all over America have a Locust Street.”
High stakes, big reward
For public relations agencies, landing a contract with a large trade association is a big deal.
“The stakes are high, and the competition is intense,” says Larry Parnell, director of George Washington University’s master’s program in strategic public relations. “But as you can see, winning one of these things is very lucrative.”
It’s difficult to draw sweeping conclusions from the data analyzed by the Center. Trade groups often vaguely describe the services their top contractors provide as “professional fees” or “consulting.” Many firms offer a wide range of services, at times making it unclear exactly what kind of work was done on the industry associations’ behalf.
Because the Center for Public Integrity only reviewed the most politically active trade associations, the data didn’t include some industry groups that fell below the $1 million lobbying threshold but still spent heavily on public relations and advertising.
But the contractor information provides an inside look at the way trade associations use PR and advertising to ply the American mind. Trade groups determined to fight regulations and boost profits of their members have spent heavily to influence how the public perceives policies that affect everything from the air we breathe to the beverages we drink.
The strategy, public relations experts say, is not designed to replace lobbying so much as it is to enhance it.
“You can leverage [public relations work] so your lobbying is to a finer point,” says Parnell, noting that lobbyists can better influence lawmakers by showing them polling gathered by “grassroots” PR campaigns. “It provides air cover.”
“People and organizations are getting increasingly sophisticated with their communications strategies. They are more multi-dimensional,” adds Anne Kolton, vice president of communications for the American Chemistry Council. “With any advocacy [effort], the key is to create an echo chamber so people hear your message in numerous venues.”
There are some advantages to putting millions into PR rather than lobbying. For example, a trade association may be pushing a particular policy that is not so popular with the public. As long as it doesn’t directly contact a government official, it need not report who it has hired to do the PR work. Lobbying firms generally must report how much they are paid, who their clients are and what subject areas they are working on.
PR agencies may further obfuscate their role by creating so-called “front groups” that appear to be grassroots organizations, in an effort to push their clients’ messages. It is often difficult to discern who is behind these manufactured entities, though sometimes information can trickle through.
For example, the tax form for the National Mining Association showed that it paid $4 million to Weber Merritt, a Northern Virginia public affairs firm, as an independent contractor. The services were listed as “Count on Coal” in 2012, according to IRS filings.
Count on Coal calls itself a "grassroots organization" that educates people on coal-powered electricity. Its social media and online petitions, which criticize government proposals to cut carbon emissions, all omit ties to the mining association.
While this type of “grassroots” mobilization is increasingly driven by an industry or paid consultants, it is only one piece of the growing demand for communications professionals, who specialize in everything from crisis management to social media advocacy.
In 2013, the global public relations industry grew 11 percent over the previous year to $12.5 billion, according to trade journal The Holmes Report.
The steady rise in public relations worldwide spending has been accompanied by an overall drop in lobbying spending, beyond the trade group sector.
Lobbying expenditures peaked in 2010, when special interests spent $3.6 billion on lobbying federal lawmakers. Since then, they have declined steadily, falling to $3.2 billion in 2013, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The total number of registered lobbyists has also dropped.
Some say the change indicates a shift toward so-called “soft lobbying,” a strategy that enables industry groups and unions to influence public policy not only with public relations, but through think tanks, nonprofit organizations and grassroots groups that aren’t subject to federal disclosure rules.