Photo from 2005 satirical comedy 'Thank You for Smoking.'
Attending a work related function a few years ago; I had spent a pleasant ten minutes or so speaking with an older gentleman. My plans to keep mingling were quickly interrupted upon hearing mention of his government relations firm.
Colleagues and West Wing episodes had warned me about these people. I was speaking to an actual lobbyist!
I remember feeling rather confused. He seemed like a pleasant individual; I never would have thought of him as a lobbyist.
Four years later and I’m still confused. Why had I held such strong and misinformed opinions about lobbyists?
I’m not the only one either. A 2011 Gallup Politics Poll reported that lobbyists were one of the least trusted professions alongside bankers, politicians and used car salesmen.
Similarly, past President of the American League of Lobbyists, Paul Miller describes the stereotype of lobbyists as, “portly, cigarette smoking men who wine and dine lawmakers while slipping money into their pockets.”
Clearly the term lobbyist has no shortage of synonyms.
Intrigued, I set out to find and analyze Canadian lobbyist stereotypes and determine whether or not any of this really matters.
Lobbyists in the Media
There is no question that media matters and their coverage of issues and people have the potential to influence Canadians nationwide. While certainly not the sole source of lobbying stereotypes, headlines give us a great idea of how the news media portray lobbyists. I conducted a content analysis of 137 headlines from national and local newspapers to better understand their portrayal. Three key points stuck out:
1) Framing was overwhelmingly negative.
Not only were headlines positive just 9% of the time, but 64% were outright negative: " Mr Jaffer has opened up the Prime Minister's office to us'; Star investigation: Escorts, booze, fancy dining and cocaine . . . the inside story of the night it all went wrong for the former Tory MP " (Toronto Star, April 8, 2010)
2) 51% of headlines were informal
Informal headlines included personal opinions or value judgments: “MGM eyes Toronto for sprawling casino; Gambling giant has hired lobby group Sussex Strategy to make case at city hall for glitzy facility.” (The Globe and Mail, April 2012)
3) Industry and scandals were the most common topics
40% of headlines spoke of the profession generally: “Shine a spotlight on lobbying in British Columbia” (Vancouver Sun, September 2008).
At 24%, scandal was another frequent topic: “Hospital lobbyists face crackdown Jo Brant, Halton Healthcare have used health-care dollars to lobby government.” (The Hamilton Spectator, October 2010)
Some interesting trends were seen among the scandal headlines. Of the 23% of the articles about individuals, 82% used a negative frame, and 57% were on the subject of scandals. Those commonly referenced included Rahim Jaffer, Brian Mulroney, Ken Dobell and Christian Paradis, none of whom were professional lobbyists. The fact so many headlines referred not to lobbyists themselves, but their activities, shows how the nature of the profession colours how it is portrayed in the media, and how it might be perceived by Canadians.
Talking to Lobbyists
In order to further investigate these stereotypes, I conducted a series of interviews with 11 consultant lobbyists. Three key findings emerged:
1) So what?
All of the respondents agreed that negative stereotypes existed but they largely downplayed and dismissed their importance. Participants stated that the misperceptions had minimal impacts on their day to day activities: “People have negative opinions about lawyers and bankers – there are all sorts of professions that are seen as less than noble, there are jokes about them. We can’t all rescue people from burning buildings and save lives…”
2) Hidden within the Ottawa Bubble
The second finding contradicts earlier accounts that negative stereotypes don’t impact individual lobbyists. When faced with the question of what they do for a living, almost all of the respondents stated that “lobbyist” was often one of the final terms they used to describe their profession: “I was travelling over the holidays and someone asked what I do and I usually don’t use the L-word. I say that I work in government relations and then they get the “oh, bags of money” thing…”
A potential explanation for this could be that lobbyists are mostly working and living within the “Ottawa bubble.” As one lobbyist said, “the social circle that we hang out in, in Ottawa…people understand lobbyists perfectly…they’re used to us.” Lobbyists may be disconnected from the stereotypes on a daily basis but the majority reported an interest in clearing up any misunderstandings when asked about their profession.
3) Myth vs. Reality
One lobbyist put it straight saying, "The lobbyist is pictured as wining and dining and having a great time. In reality this is an American one....we're lining up to get into committee meetings and sitting through hours of testimony and distilling it down and reporting back to the clients. It’s not glamorous at all."
Multiple participants acknowledged that historically lobbying was a “relationship based business, so it was who you knew” but a majority were optimistic of the industry’s increasing professionalization.
Ultimately, there is no question that negative perceptions surround the industry but there is little consensus among lobbyists about what should be done next. One idea that the participants did agree on was a wishful sentiment for Canadians to be aware of their own role as public policy advocates. While it may be a lobbyist’s job to advocate for certain issues, nothing compares to the power that passionate and informed Canadians can have over public policy decisions.
Nancy Cruz recently graduated from Carleton University's Bachelors in Public Affairs and Policy Management specializing in strategic public opinion. She has previously worked for an Member of Parliament, a Senator and in various government departments. This fall, she will begin her Masters in Sustainable Energy Policy.