A new analysis by the Center for Public Integrity finds that trade groups have cut back on spending for lobbyists. Instead, the groups are putting their money into public relations—with fewer regulations and stronger results.
Maybe associations are lobbying more than ever—but they’ve changed their aim from politicians to the public at large.
A recent investigation by the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) highlights trade groups’ increasing focus on advertising, public relations, and marketing efforts, with associations spending 37 percent of their total contractor budgets in the sector between 2008 and 2012, based on CPI’s analysis of annual tax records from 144 trade groups.
Overall, the trade groups spent $1.26 billion on advertising, far more than any other service, and nearly twice the $682 million that was spent on lobbying, legal services, and government affairs. A huge portion of the $1.2 billion total came from just one relationship: The $327.4 million the American Petroleum Institute paid public relations firm Edelman over the four-year period. The amount was most of the $372 million the association spent over the period.
In its report, CPI portrayed advertising as an area where trade groups had more freedom to push their message, compared with more traditional means.
“The public relations industry is on a growth tear while the number of federally registered lobbyists is actually shrinking,” CPI reporters Erin Quinn and Chris Young wrote in their story. “Public relations work, unlike lobbying, is not subject to federal disclosure rules, and PR and advertising campaigns can potentially influence a broader group of people.”
Other highlights from the report:
Energy at the top of the heap: Energy-industry groups, led by API’s big contracts with Edelman, tended to be the biggest spenders on marketing and public relations issues. Other groups in the sector that spent significant amounts on marketing include Growth Energy and the National Biodiesel Board.
Other big advertisers: Two of the country’s largest trade groups—the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Realtors (NAR)—each spent more than $100 million on advertising and marketing over the four-year period. Four other groups—the American Beverage Association (ABA), the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), CTIA: The Wireless Association, and America’s Health Insurance Plans—each spent more than $30 million on advertising over the four-year period, according to the report.
The agencies that create the messages: Thanks to the massive API contract, Edelman was by far the largest public relations firm in the association sector—accounting for $346.7 million in highlighted contracts—though the agency was far from alone. Other large ad agencies in the sector include the GMMB, which (on top of running Obama’s presidential campaigns) had contracts with ABA, CTIA, and the Society for Human Resource Management; The MOST, which handled NAR’s ad campaigns; National Media Research, Planning, and Placement, which worked closely with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and PhRMA; and Goddard Gunster, an agency that also worked with the ABA.
Public Affairs Council President Doug Pinkham told CPI that the trend was becoming more pronounced because of its effectiveness compared to lobbying.
“In the world we live in now, if you have an issue that is visual and has a compelling narrative, we’re better off spending more resources on trying to educate the public,” Pinkham said.