Holmes Report Blog

The Holmes Report blog focuses on news and issues of interest to public relations professionals. Our main site can be found at www.holmesreport.com.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Swindlers, Fixers and... Is There a Third Way?: In an entertaining if not particularly substantive piece for the Financial Times (sub req’d), Slate editor Jacob Weisberg casts a jaundiced eye on the Washington lobbying scene, where he finds two kinds of lobbyists.

The swindler (Jack Abramoff was an example) “spends a lot of time prowling fundraisers and receptions to be seen and photographed with his arm around elected officials… Short of a criminal inquiry, infamy is free advertising. The Swindler lobbyist's natural prey is the naive but cynical client -- the African dictator, the Russian oligarch or the casino Indian -- who thinks the game in Washington is rigged and that he must pay someone… to play and win it.”

The fixer “does not socialise promiscuously or revel in the high life. His work takes place over the phone or in boring, substantive meetings…. What, if anything, he accomplishes for them remains a mystery, since neither he nor the client wants you to know.”

Cynicism aside, Weisberg captures a disturbing truth about the state of the influence game, which is that over the past six years it has moved back inside the beltway. In the 90s, most of the high-profile policy debates – telecoms and healthcare reform come to mind -- were played out in the public domain, and smart companies used a broad range of services that included media relations, grassroots organizing, issues advertising to marshal public support beyond the beltway and influence the outcomes.

Over the past six years, a lot of that work has either dried up or exists to provide “air cover” for members who have already decided which way to vote. Public opinion won’t sway them, but they’d like you to sell ordinary voters on your position so they don’t have to pay a price for supporting you. Whether that’s because one party controls all three branches of government, and does pretty much whatever it likes, or because that party is uncomfortable with free and open debate is an issue upon which reasonable people may disagree – but I don’t think the trend has been a healthy one for either public relations or democracy.

It’s possible that the Abramoff scandal might start the pendulum swinging back toward greater public involvement, that it might reignite the kind of public relations activity that involves voters in the discussion. My friend John Ashford, CEO of The Hawthorn Group and expert in grassroots mobilization, thinks so: “In the post-Abramoff era,” he says, “I have a feeling there is going to be a huge premium on true grassroots/grasstops lobbying… that is done honestly, credibly, transparently. It can’t be Astroturf… It’s got to be real... and it’s got to be transparent about who is paying for it.

“What, in a democracy, could be a more legitimate form of advocacy or lobbying than taking a message about an issue into the public arena, convincing constituents of their interest in it, and mobilizing them to lobby their elected officials? It’s not about sky-boxes at sports events, or free trips or corporate jets, or salaries for members’ wives, or bundled campaign contributions. It’s about waging a public campaign on a public policy issue.”

Here’s hoping.

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