The PR Industry : PR and Government

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Public relations and lobbying industry

an overview

By Corporate Watch UK
Completed April 2003

4.0 PR and Government

4.1 Lobbying/Public Affairs
4.2 International Public Affairs
4.3 Governmental Spin

4.1 Lobbying/Public Affairs

[See also section 3.4]

Lobbying depends on experience and research. Well-connected individuals exploit their political contacts on behalf of clients, providing access to key individuals. Nowadays lobbying companies maintain extensive files on politicians and other influential people so as to know who best to approach and in what way, in order to further a campaign. As with other areas of PR lobbying has become a more challenging discipline. According to a Hill and Knowlton executive, "You can't just show up with a bottle of Wild Turkey and get your topic on the hearing schedule anymore. You have to work with staffers, and you have to be more aware of alliances and petty fights on the Hill. It's just not easy."[60]

One of the more sophisticated methods for influencing legislators is a practice known as 'grasstops' communications. In this, the PR agency will carefully identify the peer group of the target legislator or 'opinion former'. They will then hire one or more members of that group, friends or acquaintances of the target, to informally promote the PR message within the group - a 'district liaison'. In this way the agency aims to create for the target the artificial impression that 'everyone is talking about it' and that there is strong community support for the issue[61]. With this method, legislators may not even realise that they are being lobbied.

Lobbying is used in influencing legislation and all kinds of government decisions. After Railtrack was taken into administration, for example, the four largest institutional investors hired Bell Pottinger, the UK market leaders in PR and lobbying, to lobby government for a better deal out of the firm's collapse. Ernst & Young, administrators of Railtrack, felt the need to hire Edelman to conduct PR on their behalf over the issue and also Citigate Public Affairs to support them[62].

Bell Pottinger has also picked up an account for the Public Private Partnership Forum which, in the wake of the London Underground controversy, felt it "better to concentrate our work on reminding people of the benefits of PPP as a whole." Bell Pottinger Public Affairs was hired to lobby both central government and opposition groups including trade unions[63].

4.2 International Public Affairs

The hiring of PR agencies to promote a country's image abroad is becoming an indispensable part of modern diplomacy. The story of Hill & Knowlton, et al's involvement in the 1991 Gulf War [see Hill & Knowlton profile section 4.6] is a signal case of the power of PR.

Since the World Trade Centre bombing and the prospect of war without end, effective PR in the USA may now be a prerequisite for the long term survival of a government in the Islamic world[64]. Both Pakistan and the Phillipines, two countries in the thick of George Bush's 'crusade', hired Weber Shandwick subsidiaries in 2002. Pakistan is paying Sterling International Consulting Group $50k per month to create a more favourable image for the country in the USA[65] and the Philippines, where over 1000 US troops are fighting Islamist guerrillas, is using Rhoads-Weber Shandwick Government Relations to facilitate its communications with the Pentagon[66]. Saudi Arabia, home of most of the September 11th hijackers has been directing larger and larger sums at rehabilitating its tarnished image in the USA. It has hired Qorvis Communications to advertise its efforts to help the US in combatting terrorism and to place pro-Saudi articles in the press, spending a record $14.6 million between April and September 2002[67], and Paton Boggs undertakes lobbying for the kingdom in Congress.

4.3 Governmental Spin

The relationship between government and the PR industry is a long and intimate one. Many top lobbyists begin their careers working in political circles, and many top PR people have worked in government. Government spin doctors and their commercial counterparts use the same skills and techniques to accomplish the same goal; to create a favourable public image in the media. Several top PR people have managed to reach the top in both the governmental and business worlds.

One of the most famous British spin doctors is Sir Tim Bell, of Bell Pottinger. In the late 1970s Bell was a rising star at advertising agency, Saatchi & Saatchi. When Saatchi & Saatchi were hired to handle advertising for the Conservative's 1979 election campaign, Bell was to become one of Margaret Thatcher's personal spin doctors. He coached her on interview technique and even advised on clothing and hairstyle choices. As the 1979 election campaign intensified, he and Gordon Reece, media relations supremo at Conservative Central Office, "assiduously courted the editors of two newspapers they had singled out for special attention: Larry Lamb of the Sun and David English of the Daily Mail… They would drop by regularly for informal meetings with Lamb, usually in the evenings over large quantities of champagne,"[68] writes Mark Hollingsworth in his biography of Bell.

Bell's work for the conservative party did not end there. In 1984 he was seconded to the National Coal Board (NCB) to advise on media strategy at the start of the miners' strike. His duties went far beyond mere media relations, however. So highly was Bell regarded that he became closely involved with the overall political strategy as the industrial dispute turned into political warfare between the NUM and the government. Whilst the NCB own industrial relations department wanted to reach a negotiated settlement, Bell, amongst others, was able to persuade Ian McGregor to accept nothing less than an unconditional return to work.[69]
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[60] Mundy A., "Is the Press Any Match for Powerhouse PR?" Columbia Journalism Review Sept/Oct 1992

[61] Stauber J & Rampton S, "Democracy for Hire", The Ecologist, Vol 25, No 5, Sept/Oct 1995

[62] PR Week, 3-8-2001

[63] PR Week, 19-10-2001

[64] 'PR Without End', CW Newsletter 10, Aug/Sept 2002

[65] 9-10-2002 O'Dwyer's PR Daily

[66] 2-5-2002 O'Dwyer's PR Daily

[67] 27-12-2002 O'Dwyer's PR Daily

[68] Hollingsworth M., 1997, "The Ultimate Spin Doctor: the Life and Fast Times of Tim Bell", p.70

[69] Hollingsworth M., 1997, "The Ultimate Spin Doctor: the Life and Fast Times of Tim Bell", p.pp118-124