Creating Echo Chambers for Issues

Advocacy campaigns have become battlefields for issues such as restricting use of the chemical BPA in plastic containers.Terms such as "lobbying," "advocacy" and "public affairs" are used commonly – and not always flatteringly – when discussing influencing Congress. NPR's Morning Edition ran a piece this week that gave a glimpse of what those terms mean on the ground.

"The art of public affairs," says Anne Womack-Kolton, a vice president of communications for the American Chemistry Council, "is telling your story as many ways as you can to create that echo chamber around whatever target you are trying to reach."

The NPR story centered on the congressional debate over restricting use of bisphenol A (BPA) in manufacturing hard-plastic drinking bottles, including baby bottles. Chemical companies insist BPA is safe, while consumer activists say it interferes with reproductive development in animals and has been linked to heart disease and diabetes in humans.

"I'll get an email or a phone call from either side saying, 'Hey, did you see this new Canadian study that says BPA is safe?' or 'Hey, did you see this Australian study on the health effects of BPA,'" explains Lyndsey Layton of The Washington Post. "So over the transom there's scientific data pouring in from either side and they're trying to use it to their advantage."

That's an example of advocacy – using credible, or at least seemingly credible, third-party sources to hammer home your side's argument.

Keep in mind, public affairs and advocacy campaigns aren't direct lobbying. That's the role of men and women who troop around Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. to meet with Members of Congress and their staffs to lobby a point of view, usually in the form of asking for a "yes" or "no" vote on a bill.

The image of cigar-chomping influence-peddlers prowling the halls of Congress to get their way has been eclipsed by the new age of public affairs and advocacy.

"When it comes to the inner workings of Washington, you often hear about lobbyists influencing the political process," says NPR reporter Elizabeth Blair. "But there's another time-tested profession that works just as hard trying to do much the same thing: Public Relations. In D.C., it's often referred to as public affairs or advocacy. But it's PR just the same."

The weapons advocacy warriors wield vary substantially. Corporate advocacy campaigns can include multi-million dollar advertising campaigns. Public interest groups don't have big treasuries and instead use techniques such as catchy slogans.

Michael Jacobson, who has run the Center for Science in the Public Interest for 40 years, is a master of the artful phrase. "Fettucine alfredo was a heart attack on a plate. Movie theater popcorn was the Godzilla of snack foods," Jacobson says. "Little slogans that have stuck for good reason." PR pros use snappy lines all the time to hawk products, and public affairs pros use them to hawk ideas and points of view. After Jacobson launched his 'Godzille of snack foods' catch-phrase in 1994, popcorn sales in movie theaters plummeted, causing proprietors to use healthier oil.

"The fight for attention is so intense today that advocacy groups are using more and more sophisticated tactics," Blair reports. "Social media like Facebook and Twitter, aggressively targeting lawmakers' constituents at home or throwing parties on Capitol Hill to promote a particular industry. Political advocacy today is like any kind of PR. You try to get your message across any way you can."