Shockwaves abound as new regs classify PR as lobbying

New York is the first state to categorize public relations as lobbying. Watch out, industry leaders are fighting mad.

From what I’ve seen over the years, PR pros aren’t easily shocked.

However, New York State’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) has managed to stun most in the industry.

Earlier this year, JCOPE passed regulations that require PR consultants to provide information on their relationships and interaction with the media and government officials in the state of New York. Doesn’t it sound like the kind of accountability that lobbyists must provide?

According to the scope of the rules, PR practitioners or firms working with New York State officials could be labeled as lobbyists because of their potential influence on public officials via the media.

The new guidelines say that a PR professional in the Empire State is considered a lobbyist if any of the following situations apply:

  • The result of PR initiatives includes introducing, passing or defeating a bill

  • The PR message takes a clear position on a bill

  • The PR efforts are an attempt to influence a public official in regards to a bill

The move has prompted public relations practitioners, agencies and professional organizations to ask how this label could be associated with the entire PR industry.

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Five years ago, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), the nation’s oldest and largest professional organization for the industry, spearheaded a modernization of the definition of public relations. This is their new definition:

Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.

This stands in stark contrast to a general lobbying definition according to the “Principles for the Ethical Conduct of Lobbying” by Georgetown’s Woodstock Center:

The deliberate attempt to influence political decisions through various forms of advocacy directed at policymakers on behalf of another person, organization or group.

PRSA has released a statement to oppose JCOPE’s regs. In addition, PRSA has requested JCOPE reconsider the mandate:

We suggest that JCOPE chair Daniel Horwitz and the other members of the commission consider the chilling effect it will most certainly have on free and clear lines of necessary public communication. They should issue a revised opinion that focuses on interactions between lobbyists and government officials. Such an opinion could require our clients to include expenses for PR campaigns related to legislation and rulemaking on their reports, but would not force registration and reporting on those who no one considers to be lobbyists.

Most PR practitioners strive to work ethically with all interested parties—including journalists— to connect information to the appropriate audiences. While the scope of public relations is wide, the majority of folks working in PR are not working on activities designed to influence public officials and legislation. Consider the daily schedules of most PR pros:

  • Writing press releases

  • Developing media contacts

  • Maintaining positive client relationships

  • Planning events

PR pros are always looking for ways to create credible stories with the purpose of communicating important information to the public.

By sharing safety information, medical treatments, research or consumer behavior, practitioners provide insight that’s important in the lives of people and the communities in which they live and work. Even on the hyperlocal level, like high school sports scores and ribbon cuttings, the public depends on PR practitioners to inform them about their world.

As the debate rages, PR professionals and industry organizations across the country will continue to stand together and oppose mandates that unfairly group public relations with lobbying and lobbyists.

Lisa Arledge Powell is president of MediaSource, a content-focused public relations firm that specializes in brand journalism. MediaSource has been named Best Health Care Agency in 2013, 2014 and 2015 in Ragan’s Health Care PR & Marketing Awards. Connect on Twitter: @LisaArledge.

This article was created in partnership with MediaSource.

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Topics: PR

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