The public is better at overseeing advocacy comms than state government

While New York State is moving to regulate PR consultants in the state, the public has the ultimate say over whether their actions are acceptable.

The New York State capitol building, Albany, NY. (CC BY 2.0)
The New York State capitol building, Albany, NY. (CC BY 2.0)

The controversy over New York State’s proposed regulation requiring public relations consultants to register as lobbyists has resulted in an important debate regarding a core PR function known as issues management.

By identifying any public relations activity aimed at influencing public officials via mediated channels as lobbying, the proposed regulation suggests public distrust of the PR industry as a whole, as well as general distrust of corporate communications in the realm of public affairs.

Let’s be honest. Albany corruption has (perhaps, finally) raised public concern to the point that the proposed regulation by New York State’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics seems pretty reactionary. Decades of questionable public-private backroom practices have fed into a growing distrust in both government and corporations. As supported by data from the 2015 Edelman Trust Barometer, global institutional trust is on the decline, not only for corporations and government institutions, but also for the general news media and even non-governmental organizations.

Yet, regulating corporate speech such as lobbying may prove short-sighted. While some multinational corporations have certainly tainted their own reputations through public misbehavior and unethical communication practices, others have demonstrated the beneficial role that corporations can play in shaping public debate over important issues in society.

In recent years, corporations such as Johnson & Johnson, Patagonia, and Starbucks have been at the forefront of advocating for important social causes including human rights, marriage equality, environmental issues, and even campaign finance reform.

While some may question the sincerity of corporate social marketing, we should recognize that corporations have the potential to play a critical role in democracy through responsible and transparent public affairs activities.

Decades of corporate misbehavior by organizations such as Enron, Lehman Brothers, and Worldcom intuitively challenge this assumption, yet there is room for optimism.

Case in point is the recent standoff between Apple and the Federal Bureau of Investigation over the issue of iPhone encryption. Whether they are merely protecting their own interests or are genuinely concerned over governmental infringement of consumer privacy, the tech giant placed the debate about the balance between counter-terrorism and individual rights into our living rooms and dinner tables.

Corporate issues management and advocacy should not always be dismissed as mere tactics but rather an attempt to align organizational values with those of key stakeholders. According to the 2016 Deloitte Millennial Survey, 70% of millennials believe their personal values are shared by the organizations they work for, while nearly half chose not to undertake a work assignment because it went against their personal values or ethics.

Focusing on the alignment of organizations and stakeholders to assess value is the very reason why corporate public affairs and issues management has moved straight into the C-suite as a primary PR management function.

There are many recent examples of corporate misbehavior including deceptive marketing and financial practices, price fixing, overcharging customers, and corporate cover-ups. Yet, government regulation of corporate public affairs communications may not be the best solution.

It is the public, rather than government regulators, who evaluate and respond to corporate involvement in public issues. While those companies who live up to the values they claim to hold will benefit, those who fall short will likely be held accountable by their various stakeholders.

Guy Golan is an associate professor of public relations and public diplomacy at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.

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