STUDY: PR Is the New Lobbying

The Center for Public Integrity is NOT the biggest supporter of the public relations industry

The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit organization dedicated to investigating the checks and balances in American business and politics, released its big study on “The Misinformation Industry” today; you can probably guess which industry the title refers to.

The study’s big conclusion: the amount of money spent by trade associations and other business groups looking to sway both Congress and public opinion goes overwhelmingly toward PR/marketing agencies rather than traditional political lobbying groups.

The org is particularly critical of Edelman’s longtime relationship with the oil industry:

The number in question is $327.4 million, and the report notes that the API paid Edelman nearly ten times as much as it paid its own lobbyists in 2012.

The idea, of course, is that these industries are ultimately just as concerned — if not more so — with influencing public perception than they are with directly lobbying lawmakers. The total amount spent by the 144 trade groups on PR/ad/marketing agencies from 2008 to 2012 was more than twice the amount they invested in lobbying services.

What is this money for? Advocacy campaigns like this one and research/data collection efforts like this “push poll” run by BP and covered by The Washington Post earlier this month:

BP PUSH POLL

Edelman declined to comment on any of the work it does for its clients, which reinforces the nature of the problem: the public has little or no idea which parties are crafting or promoting the messages it receives. In some cases, the origin of these messages and the money promoting them remains unclear even after extensive research.

Lest we think this is a partisan political issue, the Center lists GMMB, an ad/marketing agency that worked on Barack Obama’s campaigns, as the second biggest player in the new lobbying game. APCO Worldwide, Ogilvy, and FleishmanHillard also receive mentions in the paper.

The Center admits that very few specific conclusions can be drawn from the data collected in this study. Its moral outrage stems from the fact that in almost every case, the goal of these trade groups is to counteract federal and/or state-level regulations on their members’ businesses. Examples of the causes they oppose include Obama’s plans to regulate carbon emissions, the efforts of Governor Andrew Cuomo and others to limit the practice of fracking, and former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s attempts to shrink soda serving sizes.

The point we take from the study is that transparency is either difficult or impossible to achieve in such relationships — so the public is free to draw its own (overwhelmingly negative) conclusions about the work done by these firms and the PR industry in general.

To get specific: many of the firms in question work for energy trade groups as well as clients tied to environmental advocacy organizations; these two groups are inherently at odds with one another.

On that point, here’s what Richard Edelman told VICE property Motherboard last summer:

“I’m totally unequivocal about climate change…We do not accept clients that seek to deny climate change.”

The API doesn’t strictly deny climate change, but it certainly helps elect and influence politicians who do.

We return to Gini Dietrich’s quote from today’s Marketwired infographic:

“It’s time to take a stand, do proper PR for ourselves, and show the world that we are not liars or spin doctors.”

Studies like this one demonstrate how difficult that task will be.