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January 29, 2016

PRSA Statement Regarding the New York State Joint Commission on Public Ethics Redefinition of Public Relations

The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), the nation’s largest and foremost membership organization for public relations and communication professionals, supports its members and the public relations firms, journalists and others who have expressed their opposition to the New York State Joint Commission on Public Ethics’ (JCOPE) advisory opinion that  will expand the definition of lobbying (Legislative Law Article 1-A) to cover activities of public relations and communications professionals that are in no way “lobbying” and require people who are not lobbyists to register as lobbyists.  

“JCOPE’s new interpretation of what it considers to be lobbying will do nothing to further the public’s trust in government, is ambiguous, and could require a whole group of professionals who have no contact with lawmakers to register as lobbyists,” said Mark McClennan, 2016 PRSA National Chair. “Forcing communications professionals who interact with reporters and develop messaging strategies for their clients to register as lobbyists, does not support JCOPE’s mission to ‘restore public trust in government by ensuring compliance with the State's ethics and lobbying laws, regulations, and guidance.’ Instead, the poorly worded action will lead to more confusion as to what lobbying is, circumvention based on the ambiguous standards articulated, and less trust in government.”

Governor Andrew Cuomo's focus on curbing corruption in Albany is to be commended. Requiring those who speak with the media or who help a client develop a messaging strategy to register as lobbyists has nothing to do with lobbying and nothing to do with corruption in government.

JCOPE’s opinion sets out an overbroad standard for when certain communications activities are considered to be lobbying. It includes contacting a media outlet “to advance a client’s message in an editorial” as lobbying. This completely ignores the media’s role in deciding what it covers and delivering their messages. The opinion also defines lobbying to include situations where a consultant “controlled the delivery of the message and had input into its content.” This will cause those who do not want to be considered lobbyists to carefully parse their work to avoid registration and may negatively impact business and firms may need to increase fees to deal with new reporting.

As public relations professionals, we have long committed ourselves to working ethically with interested parties, including the media, to connect people with information that is important to citizens and businesses. In the course of that work, there are times when the information we share will be important to elected officials and government agencies. We believe that fostering transparent and open lines of communication should be protected and commended.

Rather than overly-broadening the definition of lobbying, JCOPE would better serve the citizens of New York State by focusing on ethical compliance among government officials and true lobbyists.  

We suggest that JCOPE chair Daniel Horwitz and the other members of the commission consider the chilling effect it will most certainly have on free and clear lines of necessary public communication. They should issue a revised opinion that focuses on interactions between lobbyists and government officials. Such an opinion could require our clients to include expenses for PR campaigns related to legislation and rulemaking on their reports, but would not force registration and reporting on those who no one considers to be lobbyists.

About the Public Relations Society of America
PRSA is the largest professional organization serving the U.S. public relations community. With a mission to “advance the profession and the professional,” PRSA provides news and information, thought leadership, continuing education and networking opportunities; sets standards of professional excellence and ethical conduct; and advocates for the business value of public relations and greater diversity among public relations professionals. Based in New York, PRSA comprises 112 local Chapters; 14 Professional Interest Sections that focus on specific industries and practice areas; and the Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA), which is active at more than 340 colleges and universities.
Laurent Lawrence
phone: 212.460.1452
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