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League of Lobbyists Unveils Its New PR Blitz

It turns out that the special interest most in need of a good lobbyist is K Street.

At least that’s the idea behind the American League of Lobbyists’ just-unveiled, first-ever public relations offensive.

At the group’s annual meeting Tuesday, during which it also elected new officers and board members, ALL premiered a promotional video in an attempt to dispel what it considers misconceptions about the profession. Expect more such messaging next year, when President-elect Howard Marlowe assumes office.

“This is the first salvo in the media relations and public relations efforts that we’re going to have,” said Marlowe, whose Marlowe & Co. lobbies for earmarks. “There are going to be a lot of others.”

Some veteran K Streeters say they pay little attention to ALL, which has about 1,000 members — a fraction of the industry. But ALL’s officers say the group is growing and stepping up its visibility on major issues such as earmark reform.

Frustrated by the characterization of lobbyists as what’s wrong with Washington, D.C., current ALL President Dave Wenhold said the PR video was developed to sway public opinion. It’s a difficult task: Lobbyists are often a favorite punching bag during Congressional campaigns, and President Barack Obama not only blasted the influence set on the trail but also banned them from donating to his coffers or, in many cases, from serving in his administration.

“We haven’t done a good job of putting out the message on what good, accountable lobbying is,” said Wenhold, a partner at Miller/Wenhold Capitol Strategies. “People fear what they don’t know. A lot of people, when they hear you’re a lobbyist, they take two steps back; they don’t realize how they’re represented by lobbyists every day.”

Taking on the White House

Also during Wenhold’s tenure, ALL attacked Congressional bans on earmarking and successfully challenged a prohibition on lobbying the executive branch for stimulus funds, saying it violated the First Amendment. ALL teamed with the American Civil Liberties Union and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington to fight the Obama administration’s 2009 ban on federal lobbyists advocating the executive branch for stimulus money.

“That was one of the highlights not just of my career with ALL but a career highlight,” Wenhold said.

At ALL’s meeting Tuesday, the group also rolled out its updated 10-year-old code of ethics. The new code includes advice to lobbyists to be aware of any changes in the campaign finance laws and to donate a portion of their professional time to doing pro bono advocacy.

In the promotional video, former Rep. Jim Walsh (R-N.Y.), now a lobbyist with K&L Gates, applauds the ethics code. “It establishes that high standard that the Founding Fathers envisioned when they provided all Americans with the right to petition their government,” he says.

The video’s female narrator says lobbyists “give everyone a voice in the legislative process — which is essential for good economic policy.”

Getting in Front of the Camera

Mike Fulton, an executive vice president at Golin Harris, is chairman of ALL’s communications committee and helped develop the video, which was produced by Motion Masters, a Charleston, W.Va., firm. Fulton makes a cameo in it.

“The response to the video has been very positive,” Fulton said. “It captures the essence of our constitutional rights as an advocate, as a lobbyist.”

Congressional and K Street watchdogs remained unconvinced.

“Films and other propaganda won’t carry a whole lot of weight as long as the profession is perceived as guns for hire,” Public Citizen’s Craig Holman said. “The American League of Lobbyists feels under assault from groups like myself who are trying to clean up the lobbying profession.”

Fulton said ALL is doing more than the video. “We’ve media-trained our board and a lot of our members,” he said, noting that the group has also developed talking points and taken stands on controversial issues.

“We are going to take what we’ve done over the last two years under President Dave Wenhold and continue that momentum,” he added. 

Marlowe, the incoming president who also served as ALL’s president in 1988-89, acknowledged that his industry has tough times ahead. He said independent lobbyists in particular have taken a hit in the economic recession and called the earmark moratoriums “repulsive.”

“I think it’s important to take advantage of the opportunities that are there to create a better understanding and appreciation of the lobbying profession and to deal with the challenges that we have in a positive manner,” Marlowe said. “I’m holding back because I haven’t discussed any of that with the board.”

“We will come out stronger and we are going to succeed,” he added.

Bennett Roth contributed to this report.