Note: This is the first of a series of articles covering the emergence of corporate grassroots lobbying. Be sure to sign up for future blog posts for complete coverage.
Corporate grassroots lobbying has led to an estimated $1 billion-a-year industry and it’s growing. In today’s political and social environments, an increasing number of C-Suite executives have realized they need more than big PAC checks and high-powered lobbyists to achieve their public affairs strategies.
It’s the smart move, because the influence of NGOs, public scrutiny of corporate responsibility and reporting, and high-profile issue legislation have made grassroots lobbying a vital part of corporate political management.
A CHANGING PARADIGM
Corporate grassroots lobbying has long been considered taboo and a political affront to CSR and reputation management programs. Ironically, what was once considered a contradiction to corporate good works has now become an emerging public affairs sub-specialty charged with protecting and promoting the corporation’s reputation on the political stage.
In larger public corporations, corporate communications is mainly entrusted with the image, identity and reputation of the company. The notion of public affairs now sharing that responsibility has exposed cultural barriers or silos preventing seamless operation, but that’s another blog article in our series of coverage.
The fact is corporate leaders must break down silos and corporate blind spots to effectively integrate their resources to obtain the strategic high ground in the field.
WHY CORPORATE GRASSROOTS LOBBYING?
Citizen activist groups and anti-capitalism special interests have an extensive grassroots playbook (literally) that successfully mobilizes citizens, consumers and voters to attack, erode and weaken a corporation’s reputation and an industry’s credibility.
By generating negative grassroots impressions, activist groups are able to shape public opinion, or at least project an inflated "majority" viewpoint, that adversely influences political outcomes. Highly regulated industries are often engaged in controversial legislation that always seems to come down to one key legislator “sitting on the fence”.
More often than not, he/she typically sides with his/her visible and vocal constituents from the home district over a platoon of corporate and association lobbyists at the Capitol.
Corporations lose more than just high-profile legislative battles. They also suffer a damaged reputation in the eyes of stakeholders including community leaders, vendors, employees, investors, business media, bloggers, industry associations, public officials and most importantly, consumers.
Corporations no longer have to sing solo. They can organize a chorus of stakeholders who are eager to participate in grassroots advocacy campaigns.
Corporate grassroots lobbying is rapidly augmenting direct lobbying. According to a recent study, firms that cater to corporate clients to help promote their image and build and mobilize community coalitions are also more likely to provide direct lobbying services. More than 43 percent of grassroots lobbying firms are now providing some level of government affairs representation.
How this impacts direct lobbying firms not offering grassroots lobbying remains to be seen. I've worked with many lobbyists who are savvy and counsel their clients to retain grassroots public relations firms. However, I suspect a percentage of firms will expand their inside lobbying services to include outside lobbying, which is comprised of public relations consultation, stakeholder education and engagement, and grassroots mobilization.
As in any industry that’s rapidly growing, there’s mistakes and causalities. When done haphazardly, corporate grassroots lobbying can be “Astroturf” or a manufactured façade simply managed by hired political operatives hiding behind the curtain. This happens much too often and can seriously damage both lobbying efforts and reputations. In today’s digital age, it’s very easy for legislators and media to sniff out an Astroturf campaign, so avoid it at all costs.
If done correctly, however, grassroots lobbying will complement corporate responsibility initiatives and GRI Reporting priorities i.e. safeguard reputation. More importantly, it will create favorable stakeholder impressions that elevate direct lobbying efforts that improve the political odds for legislative and regulatory success. That one key legislator who was "sitting on the fence" will now have the political cover to vote for pro-business, pro-market and often times, pro-consumer legislation.
However, it comes down to how the well the corporate grassroots lobbying campaign is designed, organized and executed.
In Part II of my Corporate Grassroots Lobbying series, I will address corporate “best practices” for grassroots lobbying to ensure compliance with corporate governance, while effectively engaging stakeholders on the political stage. We will explore how best practices optimize unilateral initiatives and bolster bilateral or coalition endeavors.
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About Patrick Slevin
Patrick Slevin is a motivational and communications professional leading his firm, SL7 Communications. Patrick is a former mayor, Fortune 500 manager, national trade association director and international agency executive. Corporate leaders from around the country have retained Patrick for his strategic counsel, campaign leadership and organizational solutions.