Lobbying’s Optics Problem (COM 0014 Blog Post #6)

A member of Google takes images inside the House of Commons for Google Streetview. Image : Dave Chan. Image Source: Link.

Steak dinners. Golden handshakes. Winks and nods. Favours for friends. Selling access.

All of these terms, at some time or another, have been repeated back to me as associations with Canada’s government relations (i.e. lobbying) industry. When social reference points to the work of lobbyists include films like Thank You for Smoking (detailing the crisis of conscience experienced by an American tobacco lobbyist) or characters like Remy Danton in Netflix’s House of Cards, images of dark, smoky rooms and money in envelopes are easily envisioned.

The biggest part of a lobbyist’s day is telling a story about why decision-makers should care about their client or issue. Ironically, lobbyists have not been able to tell their own story about how their work is an important part of Canada’s democractic process.

This is the biggest challenge facing Canada’s lobbying industry today.

For those working in government relations (and particularly those working in GR under the age of 35), we know a very different world than the one described above. New rules and regulations brought in during the late 2000’s have changed Canada’s lobbying landscape,  many would argue for the better (myself included). For example, there are restrictions on who can lobby (you be a Member of Parliament or Chief of Staff one day, and a lobbyist the next), nor are there contingency fees for successful contracts – both of which are standard in government relations south of the border. If you are following the rules set out by the Government for lobbying in Canada, then your actions are very transparent.

Yet, the perception of decision-makers and lobbyists as being part of an elite circle of authority persists, negatively impacting the work of lobbyists day to day, but also the recruitment of bright young minds to government relations as a career choice. Media stories about lobbyists hosting fundraisers for politicians – and politicians turning to lobbyists and their clients for much-needed political donations – take away from the real story behind government relations in Canada today: that the industry is in full-swing change mode, and it will look completely different one decade from now.

The fact of that matter is that politics tends to be a young person’s sport. Working as a staff member to a politician at any level requires long hours, variety in responsibilities and comfort with a (potentially) short term career prospect, all of which appeal to younger people. As the staff on Parliament Hill and in provincial legislature gets younger, their expectations from stakeholders (including lobbyists) also changes, meaning that the style of communication and approach has also changed. Two hour boozy lunches discussing client issues are quickly becoming a thing of the past. Staff – and subsequently, their bosses – want to know the upshot of a policy, why it makes sense to support it, and why it will be good for their re-election (preferably in an easily-consumed one-page leave behind).

The change in audience means using different tools to communicate as well. Having a digital presence (through ads, tweets, Facebook posts) targetted to decision-makers is almost more important than an old-fashioned letter-writing campaign.

The changing face of lobbying in Canada is best told by it’s new school – i.e. young people that lobby under the new rules, and those who are on the receiving end of advocacy. While there are challenges preventing more young people from entering government relations, the expectation for more transparent and quick communication on public policy issues is not going away anytime soon.

Question: If you’re not familiar with government relations or lobbying, what are your thoughts on how it is viewed? Is it still a relevant industry in today’s democracy?

 

 

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