PRSA slams New York State lobbying rule changes

The PR Council and civil liberties and media groups have also come out against the guidance.

NEW YORK: Another major industry group has come out against New York regulators who last week redefined lobbying to include PR professionals who work with political figures.

The PRSA said the decision by the New York State Joint Commission on Public Ethics to require PR pros to register as lobbyists and disclose interaction with the media and government officials is outside of its mission to "restore public trust in the government."

"Instead, the poorly worded action will lead to more confusion as to what lobbying is, circumvention based on the ambiguous standards articulated, and less trust in government," Mark McClennan, PRSA national chair, said in a statement.

On January 26, the Joint Commission voted 10-3 to treat political consultants’ contact with members of the press as lobbying. All PR consultants and their clients must now disclose communication they have with the media and government officials in the state, if the communication intends to influence.

After the vote, a spokesman for the Joint Commission told PRWeek there is a "misconception" about the decision.

"It’s not as if people are going to have to report every conversation with the media," the spokesman said.

The regulatory body has since posted the advisory opinion on its website as guidance for consultants on how to comply with the new rules.

"Consultants offer a number of services that abut lobbying, but may not necessarily cross the line into lobbying. For example, consultants may offer services that may include communications and media relations, community organizing, coalition building, strategic planning, social media relations, grassroots advocacy, advertising, and electoral campaigns," the organization noted.

It added that "despite the terms used to describe the services, some of this activity could constitute reportable lobbying under legislative law article 1-A, the Lobbying Act," the Joint Commission said in its advisory opinion.

The Commission also explained what lobbying does and does not include, whether through traditional methods or grassroots communications.

In its advisory opinion, the Joint Commission said, "Control of the delivery of a grassroots communication involves participation in the actual delivery of the message. Input on the content of a grassroots message means participation in the formation of the message."

"The advisory opinion makes clear that like all other lobbyists, consultants who have been hired as part of a grassroots lobbying campaign must register with [the Commission] and disclose their client, what they are being paid, and what government activity they are trying to influence," said Walter McClure, director of external affairs for the Joint Commission.

He added that the guidelines do not require PR pros to report individual interactions or ask journalists to report at all.

"Consultants are not required to report individual interactions with members of the media or identify media outlets with whom they have spoken," said McClure. "The news reporters themselves are never under an obligation to register or report anything to [the Commission]."  

The Joint Commission proposed the guidelines in the fall and accepted comments through December, some of which were vehemently opposed to the measure, which is part of an overhaul of the state’s ethics laws, the organization has said.

Regulators are also soliciting informal comments on whether social media constitutes lobbying, with the joint commission saying last week’s discussion and guidelines will be useful in developing rules for social media activity.

The Commission will take comments until February 19, after which it will draft guidelines similar to the ones approved last week. 

This story was updated on February 2 with additional information and quotes from McClure.

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