For many years now, I have been the proud holder of jobs that my parents found very difficult to explain to their friends. Now, when a well-meaning acquaintance asks "what does your daughter do?" they try to explain that I help people understand how to communicate with elected officials. Invariably the response is "What? She teaches people how to lobby? Good heavens, she's not a lobbyist herself, is she?" Apparently, being a lobbyist is right up there with being a convict, especially these days. But is lobbying really that terrible? Before you utter a resounding "yes", let's look at what a lobbyist does. According to that wonderful resource Dictionary.com, a lobbyist is someone who tries to influence public officials to take one position over another on a particular issue.
That doesn't sound so bad, does it? I'm sure some of you are thinking "well, no, but that doesn't adequately describe all the terrible things that those lobbyists do in Washington, DC." Before we start casting stones, however, consider for a minute that the vast majority of these lobbyists are working on issues that you might actually care about! For example, are you a member of AARP? Do you contribute to the Sierra Club? Do you own a car and have an AAA membership? All of these organizations use funds from their members to hire "lobbyists" in Washington, DC. In fact, you, yes you, might actually be acting as a lobbyist in your daily life. Have you ever called up a city agency to express the need for a stop sign in your neighborhood? Have you signed on to a petition or letter from a professional organization that was then sent to elected officials at the state or federal level? That's lobbying, my friend, pure and simple.
Yes, I know. That's different. You're expressing your views on public policy because you really care about an issue. Those evil lobbyists, however, are paid to express opinions that they don't necessarily believe. They use all kinds of bribery to get officials on their side. The truth is, some people are paid for this work.
Some, like citizen advocates, aren't. Some employ a number of tools, such as fancy dinners, fundraisers and, as we've heard in the news lately, fully-paid trips to exotic locales as part of their lobbying efforts. Some don't. Some professional lobbyists actually are really terrible people that peddle their influence in as sleazy a manner as possible and are an embarrassment to the profession.
The vast majority, however, are people who truly believe in a cause and have found a way to marry their personal interests with their professional life. They are hired to lobby on causes they really care about, from access to health care to city planning to protection of animals. I'm often asked "what's the difference between lobbying and advocacy?" To me, it's a simple matter of the audience. People who are supporters of a particular cause or position are "advocates".
When those people start seeking to influence public officials to take one position over another on those issues, they are "lobbying." It doesn't matter whether they are paid or unpaid, whether they are in DC or "outside the beltway", or even whether they are sleazy or not: when one person seeks to influence another, that's lobbying. We can condemn the tactics and strategies they use, but let's not condemn the entire practice. Really, if you think about it, there's no escaping lobbying. In fact, it could probably be considered the world's oldest profession.
I know that some people honor another profession with that title, but if you adhere to the whole "Adam-and-Eve-in-the-garden-with-the-snake" perspective on the world, what was the snake but a very highly successful lobbyist? I'm sure he made all kinds of claims to Eve about the wholesomeness of apples and the general benefits that could be expected from apple eating. Perhaps he was evil ? or perhaps he was just trying to get a little peace and quiet in the garden. And in answer to the question that my parents always wrestle with ? no, I am not a professional lobbyist, although I do occasionally "lobby" on a personal level. But I wouldn't be ashamed to admit that I was.
Stephanie Vance, the Advocacy Guru at Advocacy Associates, works with associations and businesses that want to impact public policy through effective advocacy techniques. You can learn more about her and her work at http://www.advocacyguru.com