Industry groups, 5 PR agencies go to court to halt New York State lobbying redefinition

Five PR firms that do business in the state are trying to stop a measure that would essentially reclassify some PR consultants as lobbyists from taking effect. The PR Council, PRSA, and Arthur W. Page Society filed a distinct affidavit.

The New York State capitol building, Albany, NY. Image via Kumar Appaiah / Flickr; used under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license. Cropped and resized from original.
The New York State capitol building, Albany, NY. Image via Kumar Appaiah / Flickr; used under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license. Cropped and resized from original.

NEW YORK: Five PR agencies filed suit against the New York State Joint Commission on Public Ethics on Tuesday morning, seeking a temporary restraining order blocking the body from enacting regulations that would reclassify public affairs professionals as lobbyists.

The November Team, Anat Gerstein, BerlinRosen Public Affairs, Risa Heller Communications, and Mercury are the five agencies seeking the stay. Mercury does lobbying work, but not for all clients.

A trio of industry bodies – the PR Council, the Arthur W. Page Society, and the Public Relations Society of America – have separately filed a third-party affidavit seeking to stay the enforcement of the body’s advisory opinion.

The group passed the measure in January. The advisory opinion, which would cite agencies that do not comply with the rules, calls on PR consultants and their clients to disclose communications they have with some media and government officials in the state, as lobbyists have to do. Its stance is that agencies or consultants can influence public officials via their interaction with the media.  

Groups such as the PR Council and the PRSA voiced their opposition to the measure in the week that followed.

"Because this issue is so important to the communications industry, our respective associations are joining forces to help explain to the court the broad-reaching impact and perhaps unintended consequences that may affect our members," PR Council president Renee Wilson said in an email to members. "This is a serious issue and one that deserves to be fought with the collective might of our industry."

The PR Council’s affidavit noted that the organization has a code of ethics it expects members to comply with, including transparency and disclosure standards. Wilson noted in the affidavit that the group is not aware of members violating those standards.

The groups also stated that PR practitioners regularly interact with members of the media and speak with journalists anonymously. They also noted the various differences between PR pros and lobbyists, who often "work directly with elected officials and their staffs to conceptualize, craft, and promote, or block, the passage of legislation at the local, state, or federal levels."

The affidavit also warned that the measure could have an adverse economic impact on the state.

"Public relations firms that do not want to register as lobbyists will be deterred from communicating with the press on legislative issues, or will be forced to outsource this work to registered lobbyists," it said. "Moreover, public relations firms will need to create their own internal compliance systems, which will hinder the way public relations firms do business. Alternatively, PR firms may stop doing business in New York State."

The passage of the measure in January was met with opposition from media groups, which also said it could have a chilling effect on free speech. A spokesman for Governor Andrew Cuomo said at the time that the ruling "raises some real questions."

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