Taking a common sense approach to advocacy and lobbying

Lukasz Bochenek

May 23, 2019

A memory stick was stolen. Data was leaked to the press, including a ranking of individuals, their attitude towards an issue, and recommended actions to change their opinions. So far, nothing outrageous – just the sort of list you’d find in any public relations or public affairs campaign. But that wasn’t all. The list allegedly also included individual’s personal addresses and preferred hobbies. Now we’re entering hot water in light of GDPR and data storage laws. The company  for whom the list was created? Monsanto.

The outrage of the media and political stakeholders who found themselves on the list was understandably very vocal. After all, a politician being categorised as an “enemy” of a controversial company is likely to go down well with the general public. And there’s no better evidence of a journalist’s independence than being on the watch list of a global corporation. While some of the negative reaction is fully justified – there is never a good reason to collect personal addresses on a stakeholder list -claims that this sort of list endangers the democratic process are unfounded.

This post doesn’t aim to defend Monsanto, or their public affairs consultancy. There is too little information confirmed to judge the illegitimacy of this stakeholder list and wider influence strategy. On the contrary, I want to make some observations on the danger of over-reaction and the detrimental effects it might have on an industry that contributes positively to the democratic processes.

Putting the drama to one side, this “scandal” raises questions about the way public relations and public affairs professionals conduct themselves. It would appear that some people think companies should not analyse their landscape and look to influence the environment in which they operate. However, representing the interests of concerned stakeholders is a legal right in most systems. Knowing who has a legitimate interest in an issue, and what they think in relation to that issue, are both fundamental aspects of running an organization.

Companies and organisations must have the right to present their argument around issues that could impact their operations. We shouldn’t forget that lobbying is used by both companies and non-profit organizations. In most contexts, direct stakeholder engagement is regulated and increasingly transparent; the EU Transparency Register is a good example. Mapping stakeholders who publicly voice their concerns about an issue, or impact policy making, is part of the exercise for those who are set to be influenced – positively or negatively – by that issue.

The danger of over-regulating the public affairs industry is that it would limit the opportunities interested actors have to present their positions to those who make decisions. Without lobbying, the legislative process would actually become less democratic and more obscure, with decisions taken without expert consultation. Trivially speaking, “good guys” would have their hands tied while “bad guys” circumvent the regulations and potentially exercise illegal influence.

Advocacy and lobbying need to remain an important part of the democratic process for policymaking. That said, advocacy professionals need to guarantee transparency in their activities, while fully complying with the relevant laws and stakeholder expectations. Common sense should prevail when it comes to discussions around lobbying. Too often, they are over-fraught with emotions.