Survey: Americans Support Advocacy, With Some Caveats

The Public Affairs Council’s latest report looks at industry reputations and how CEOs can make their case to legislators.

Americans support corporate advocacy when it comes to protecting jobs and opening markets, according to a new survey. The findings have implications for how associations handle government relations, particularly in industries that may face a “trust deficit” with the public.

The 2015 Public Affairs Pulse survey, conducted by the Public Affairs Council in July and released last week, is based on interviews with 1,600 Americans who were asked what they would do if they were CEO of a company and “concerned about the impact of government laws and regulations on your business.” Hiring a lobbyist received low marks: Only 46 percent said they would do so. But respondents were supportive of other types of government relations efforts. For instance:

The public trusts associations and other nonprofits more than it trusts business.

  • 84 percent said they would personally contact elected representatives
  • 84 percent said they would find companies with the same concerns to address changing laws and regulations
  • 67 percent would ask employees if they were willing to contact representative on the company’s behalf
  • 54 percent would make campaign contributions to representatives who support the company’s views.

Respondents approved of corporate lobbying perceived to be done for purposes of the greater good—for instance, if it’s done to protect jobs at a company (80 percent), open new markets for it (72 percent), and “create a level playing field with competitors” (71 percent). They were less supportive of more self-interested goals, such as reducing costs or securing government funding.

The support for industrywide government relations efforts speaks to the value of association lobbying, according to Public Affairs Council President Doug Pinkham. “We know from a number of surveys that the public trusts associations and other nonprofits more than it trusts business,” he said.

However, Pinkham notes that not all industries have the same amount of support from the public, which can influence how they pursue advocacy. The PAC survey shows that while manufacturing and technology companies rate high in terms of trustworthiness, pharmaceutical, health insurance, and finance institutions do not. “Associations representing drug companies, health insurance plans, or banks naturally face more of a trust deficit when they’re trying to communicate,” said Pinkham.

One lesson for trade associations, Pinkham said, particularly ones in industries perceived as less trustworthy, is that they might consider promoting their overall reputation ahead of particular regulation battles. “Sectors considered less trustworthy are also more likely to be considered under-regulated,” he says. “So this means that investing in a strong reputation can improve your chances of resisting unwanted regulations.”

Also, because many Americans find the word “lobbying” itself problematic, associations might consider changing the terms of discussion with the public. That can mean using other terms such as “government affairs,” “sustainability,” and “advocacy.” But Pinkham added that using “lobby” as a verb can have a positive effect—when it represents an active effort to make changes that benefit society, people respond more positively. “Going beyond traditional terminology can win you the benefit of the doubt,” Pinkham said.

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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