The third leg of the stool

Some of you probably remember when lobbying was an insider’s game.

Armed with little more than a Rolodex and an expense account, a good lobbyist could make the right impression on the right people and get the right thing done for a client.

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Successful lobbying has always rested on a three-legged stool of money, relationships and public opinion. Certain trends in policy and technology, however, have combined in recent years to put more weight on the stool’s third leg.

 With the rise of political action committees (PACs) through the post-Watergate amendments to the Federal Election Campaign Act, political candidates became less dependent on parties for financial support. As more and more PACs came into being — aided by the Federal Election Commission’s Sun Oil opinion, which gave corporations clearance to pick up the costs of PAC administration, including solicitation of funds — candidates were faced with an ever more decentralized political landscape, where no one supporter or group of supporters was sufficient to fund a campaign.

 The new prominence of PACs was followed by the gradual downfall of America’s media gatekeepers, those enormous few news syndicates through which almost every voter received the information shaping opinions. Cable news led the first assault on the news cartel, with the Internet later fueling an even broader, more devastating attack, best symbolized by the blog-induced fall of Dan Rather, 30 years after his own coverage of Watergate.

 The ascendance of PACs has weakened party power, while the growth of new media has made it possible to reach out to the public in powerful new ways. Taken together, these trends represent a challenge — and an opportunity — for the traditional lobbyist.

 Public opinion, the third leg of the lobbyist’s stool, has taken on a new prominence in the political marketplace, over access and even over money. Most lobbyists recognize that no politician in his right mind is going to buck public opinion for a few $5,000 donations.

 And these days, the public has an opinion about everything.

 Why shouldn’t they? Everywhere they turn they’re bombarded with information. Interest groups with every agenda under the sun clamor for public attention. Activist groups with nice-sounding names and radical ideas easily disseminate information without regard for the truth. If they can sway the public to their cause, credible demands for legislation quickly follow.

 Take trans fat, for example — a kind of oil used in many types of foods. A few years back, an activist group called the Center for Science in the Public Interest declared war on trans fat, convincing the public that its use posed a clear and present danger to Americans’ health. In reality, trans fat is nothing more than margarine, yet activists began comparing the ingredient to rat poison and arsenic. The new mantra was “trans fat kills kids.” All the hyperbole surrounding this suddenly controversial frying oil led consumers to demand that their food be trans fat-free. But rather than allowing the market to adjust and giving companies and restaurants time to respond to consumer demand (which they were doing), the New York City Board of Health banned the use of trans fat in city restaurants. City councils across the country are following suit.

 Public opinion is the new frontier of lobbying.

 Perhaps you’re representing a food or drinks company whose brand is being threatened because one of its most commonly used ingredients — high fructose corn syrup, let’s say — is under attack from activists claiming that they’re interested only in promoting health (they’ve taken to calling it “HFCS,” so as not to remind people of the corn syrup they keep in their kitchens). Your responsibility to your clients in responding to this threat doesn’t end with lobbying.

 No, your message should extend to the public square — something the opposition already understands.

Set the record straight — that high fructose corn syrup and table sugar are practically identical is a story that must extend beyond the Beltway.

 As a lobbyist of public opinion, your goal is for the public to become properly informed citizens capable of putting activist claims about your company or industry in context. Such a public will push legislators in the direction of responsible lawmaking, and it will push far more powerfully than you could personally. No matter how resourceful you are in gaining or expanding access to lawmakers, the voters are the ultimate lobbyists.

 Lobbying on big issues these days means putting out the facts to wider audiences — especially the facts that too often go unheard.

 Carried out properly, public opinion lobbying is good for democracy. An informed public is hardly a given: as a columnist in The New York Times recently pointed out, significant numbers of Americans cannot identify whom the U.S. fought in World War II or which president it was who instigated Watergate.

 Americans who don’t know these facts aren’t likely to know enough to question activists’ claims about your clients. If bad ideas go unchallenged in the public square, they’ll go unchallenged on the floor of Congress as well.

Rick Berman is the president of Berman and Company, a Washington, D.C.-based public affairs firm specializing in research, communications and creative advertising.