The nation’s most politically active trade associations appear to be more interested in lobbying the public than they are in lobbying lawmakers.
That’s the main takeaway from a new Center investigation by Erin Quinn and Chris Young.
Trade groups like the American Petroleum Institute and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent more than $1.2 billion on contractors for advertising, public relations and marketing services from 2008 to 2012. That dwarfs what they spent on top lobbying contracts.
Erin Quinn and Chris Young spent more than six months investigating this story and joined us for this podcast discussion.
Chris and Erin, isn’t this what trade associations are supposed to do?
Erin Quinn: This is what they’re supposed to do, we expect this. Trade groups are designed to advocate for policies that benefit their member companies. They play a major role in shaping public policy in the United States.
Chris Young: But when most Americans think about the power trade groups wield, they think mainly about the work they do lobbying members of Congress. Much less attention is paid to how they use public relations and advertising to directly influence the public. So our investigation found that trade associations’ favorite top contractors were often PR and advertising agencies.
Not lobbying firms.
CY: Not lobbying firms, exactly. And that runs counter to what most people would think, when you look at the data.
How is public relations more effective than lobbying when it comes to influencing public opinion?
CY: For one thing, PR and advertising fly under the radar. So unlike lobbying, they are not necessarily subject to the same federal disclosure rules that lobbyists have to abide by.
EQ: So let’s say for example, a trade group is pushing for a specific piece of legislation that might not be so popular with the public. During the campaign for that, if there is no contact with a government official, they do not have to report who they hired to do that work. But on the other hand, lobbying firms report how much money they were paid, who their clients are, and what subject areas they cover in their work.
CY: And aside from that, PR and advertising campaigns have a much broader impact. So they are typically much more expensive than lobbying contracts, but they have the potential to influence millions of Americans, who can then put pressure on lawmakers. Lobbyists’ influence, on the other hand, tends to be more limited in scope.
So going to the public can be a better strategy than paying lobbyists?
EQ: Going to the public definitely acts as an effective complement to the lobbying. Public relations influences people to care about a topic and take action on it, whether that action is engaging in a letter-writing campaign, or calling your congressman or even starting some sort of group in support of it. This raises the profile of an issue. So that by the time the lobbying occurs, the lawmaker has probably already heard the arguments and they’re already familiar with the topic at hand.
CY: And even beyond what Erin was just saying, these PR and advertising campaigns help refine industry’s lobbying efforts. One public relations expert actually told us that it “provides air cover” for lobbyists. What he means by that is that lobbyists’ job becomes a lot easier if they can point to polling numbers that were influenced by a successful PR or advertising campaign. So it’s a tool in the tool belt for a lobbyist to go in with that. So it’s not necessarily that public relations is replacing lobbying so much as it is that it’s enhancing it.
So are you talking about ads you see on the subway? What are some recent examples of these kind of campaigns?
CY: The work that PR and advertising agencies do for these trade groups takes many different forms. Trade groups can hire firms to produce ads -- they can be print ads, they can be online, they can be on television. They can also conduct so-called “grassroots” campaigns that are designed to rally the public around a particular issue.
EQ: And we say “so-called grassroots” because it’s not necessarily true grassroots that is driven by everyday people. But it’s rather manufactured to look that way.
CY: So to give an example that some Americans, many Americans might be familiar with, the American Beverage Association over the past few years has been waging soda-tax fights across the country. With the help of PR firm Goddard Gunster, formerly Goddard Claussen, the trade association has created “front groups”, they’ve bought millions of dollars worth of ads in cities considering taxes on sugary drinks to try to fight them.
EQ: And by front groups we mean organizations that are posing as an independent third party when really it’s backed by some sort of special interest.
CY: That battle that I mentioned with the beverage taxes from the American Beverage Association, it played out most recently in California, in San Francisco and Berkeley, both those cities were asking voters whether they favored or opposed taxes on sugary drinks. On Election Day, voters in San Francisco rejected a soda-tax ballot measure, but a similar tax ended up passing in Berkeley.
EQ: Another example that wasn’t necessarily focussed around a piece of legislation was a campaign that the American Petroleum Institute took on during the last presidential election. There were really contentious debates at the time around things like the Keystone XL Pipeline and how to deal with climate change. And the energy industry really wanted to make sure that they were represented well in those debates.
And so API along with their PR counsel Edelman created online groups called Energy Citizens and had an advertising campaign called “Vote For Energy”, and it was really a chance for oil and gas to polish its reputation before the election.