Does Government Relations Need a PR Makeover?

It’s no secret that many in the general population believe lobbying is a less-than-squeaky-clean endeavor. In fact, entering the word “lobbying” into a popular search engine is likely to turn up two types of content.

  1. Op-ed pieces on the theme of corruption
  2. Cartoons featuring top hats and sacks emblazoned with dollar signs

Results for my own search, which I carried out through CoreAlerts, were peppered with words like “scandal” and “backroom”. For practitioners of government relations (GR), these generalizations are bad news. Although GR encompasses a whole range of relationship-building activities that may or may not include direct lobbying, the distinction between the two roles is lost on many. Recent scandals involving government officials have only worsened the situation, decreasing the level of trust between those who seek to maintain relationships with these officials and members of the general public. In addition, many GR professionals claim that a fear of negative public perception has caused officials to avoid engaging with them altogether.

Of course, professions that fall beneath the PR umbrella will always be regarded with suspicion by some. But when public trust begins to dip below expected levels, it may be time for individual practitioners to make plans to manage their reputations.

 

 

Lobbying and Government Relations: Current Climate

In October of 2014, Karen Shepherd – Canada’s commissioner of lobbying – proposed a new code of conduct for lobbyists. In an Ottawa Citizen interview, Shepherd conveyed that the changes were meant to “clarify the rules surrounding the work of lobbyists”, in part so that “federal politicians, aides, and bureaucrats know when [lobbyists] have crossed the line”. The consultation period has passed, garnering input from organizations such as PAAC and the GRIC.

In a recent outcome stemming from a complaint made in November of 2013, one of Jason Kenney’s former aides was told he behaved unacceptably when he accepted event invitations from three organizations registered to lobby his department. Ethics and Conflict of Interest Commissioner Mary Dawson decided Michael Bonner should have known that the invitations “might reasonably be seen to have been given to influence him in respect of his official responsibilities.”

These recent developments have had an impact on not only lobbyists, but those who engage in less-direct relationship-building activities with government officials. This could, of course, include employees who carry out political activities for organizations in the charitable sector, where spending laws can be especially vague. Changes to the law (and its application) can result in confusion across the board. In such climates, decision-makers and their aides tend to shy away from listening to outside points of view. Though many GR practitioners are most immediately worried about their relationships with these individuals, they shouldn’t neglect to consider the consequences of negative public perception.

In her Ottawa Citizen interview, Karen Shepherd discusses the public perspective, stating that part of the purpose of her proposed code is to “assure Canadians…that those lobbying public office holders are doing so in accordance with the highest ethical standards.” Common sense would dictate that, when everybody commits to transparency, everybody wins – including GR practitioners, who benefit from better reputations and increased access to decision-makers. The question is, do increased regulations and censures actually do anything to allay public concern?

 

 

Public Perception and the Media

A CoreAlerts search for senator Mike Duffy – carried out during the fifth week of his trial for fraud, bribery and breach of trust – turned up 357 articles. Each of these articles was published during the last two weeks. The sheer volume of this coverage reveals an enormous public appetite for scandal. In comparison, proposed changes to the lobbyists’ code and the recent conflict of interest ruling have received very little media coverage. The online version of the Ottawa Citizen interview with Karen Shepherd – published October 16, 2014 – has yet to receive a single reader comment.

Of course, when it comes to journalism, sensationalism has always been a big draw. But the current state of affairs cannot be attributed to this factor alone. A general cynicism has set in among the Canadian population. Studies show that, as a nation, we are highly distrustful of government. The recent expense scandal – which includes Patrick Brazeau and Pamela Wallin as well as Mike Duffy – certainly hasn’t helped.

This national suspicion extends to the political process itself; interactions between government officials and those whose advocacy work brings them within close proximity to said officials are certainly not exempt. In this atmosphere, industry-wide attempts to increase transparency may not have much public impact – at least not until they are more visible. In the meantime, public opinion of lobbying and related activities may continue to worsen. The careers and individual reputations of GR professionals are at stake.

 

 

Reputation Management in an Era of Cynicism

While improving the perception of an entire industry may be unrealistic, individual practitioners can play a role in shaping how they’re perceived individually. How? Public relations can be complex, but most in the field will tell you that information is key.

Taking stock is the first step in any worthwhile reputation-management strategy. What does the public think of you, your industry, and the interests you advocate for? How can you go out of your way to differentiate yourself from those who have faced bad publicity or suspicion? The answer may determine who you decide to work for and with. Listening is important. Monitor news, editorials, blog posts – anything that could directly or indirectly affect

your reputation among stakeholders and others in your professional life. This need to monitor public opinion is as crucial for GR professionals as it is for those at the helm of major brands and organizations.

But a proactive approach should go beyond monitoring the media; after all, it’s the outcomes that occur on Parliament Hill and in legislatures that matter most. Keeping tabs on what’s happening in these spaces is crucial. How will an MP’s statement be reported in the media, or perceived by those who read it? Are the interests you represent being advocated for by others with tact? Might a round of advice or some other course of action improve the situation? These are questions that can only be answered when you have all pertinent information – including relevant discussions that occur during the legislation-formation process. Automated government-monitoring software can be hugely beneficial in the hunt for data, especially software that delivers crucial developments in real time.

But the best thing any government relations professional can do for her reputation is comply with the law and her industry’s ethical standards. In this small way, reputations are built up – along with the fabric of democracy.

 

Feature image courtesy of Niuton may

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