Why lobbying is not always an obscure activity
25 November 2018
Iskander De Bruycker (UAntwerp) analyzed whether media attention helps lobby groups.
Brussels houses about 15 000 lobby organisations, which employ over 30 000 lobbyists. All try to affect EU policy decisions on a daily basis. Lobbying in Brussels is often considered an obscure activity, which largely takes place outside the spotlights of public scrutiny. At the same time, some lobbyists intentionally seek the mass media’s attention in order to win their policy battles. In a recent study published in Political Communication, Dr. Iskander De Bruycker (University of Antwerp) concludes that media attention can help EU lobbyists to attain their policy objectives, but only if they manage to frame their position as being in the public interest.
On January 22, 2014, Paul de Clerck, trade campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe, made a statement in the online news outlet EurActiv about the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). He said that, “The European Commission is showing its total disregard for the voices of people who mobilised en masse […] the TTIP negotiations are a dangerous Trojan horse driven by corporations at the expense of essential protections for people and the environment.” Representatives from BusinessEurope and the American Chamber of Commerce, in contrast, stated on February 13, 2014 in the Financial Times that “TTIP will increase the prosperity of the vast majority”.
These quotes exemplify how lobbyists appeal to the public interest in the news media. Citizen action groups, such as Friends of the Earth Europe, but also corporate lobby organizations, such as BusinessEurope and the American Chamber of Commerce regularly appeal in the media to the public interest to strengthen their position. De Bruycker: “Lobby groups cannot solely rely on self-centered arguments when participating in mass media debates. They need to highlight societal demands and interests to justify their policy objectives.”
In a recent study of 125 different EU legislative cases, De Bruycker analyzes whether media attention helps lobby groups in realizing their policy objectives. The study draws from over 200 interviews with spokespersons of lobby groups and the European Commission. In addition, it analyzes over 3500 quotes and paraphrases of politicians and lobby groups in six different news outlets across Europe (The Financial Times, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Agence Europe, European Voice, Euractiv and Le Monde). The study shows that what makes lobby groups successful is framing their goals in the media as aligned with the public interest. De Bruycker: “About 19% of the lobby groups in the study managed to connect their own goals with the interests of European citizens in the media. The data shows that lobbyists who often contact journalists and who manage to appeal to public interests in the news are more successful.”
Measuring political influence: quest for the Holy Grail
Unique about the study is that it relies on two different measures of lobbying success: one based on interviews with lobbyists and the other based on interviews with spokespersons of the European Commission. Both measures confirm the study’s findings. De Bruycker: “Policy practitioners and academics face many hurdles in coming at a reliable estimate of political influence. Measuring political influence is like a quest for the Holy Grail. But by combining different measures of success, we can come at reliable findings. Incorporating complementary measures of influence should be the next golden standard in studies on political influence. Such measures could, for instance, capture how successful lobbyists perceive themselves, but also how successful they were perceived by others.”
The findings of this study are important in evaluating the EU’s vulnerability to non-democratic forms of political influence and biases towards the corporate world. According to De Bruycker, the findings point to a potential loophole in EU democratic decision making: “Lobbyists can cloak their self-interests and impact EU policy by falsely presenting themselves as the people’s voice. We need more research to clarify whether lobbyists who claim to advocate in the public interest are genuinely representing the views of the broader public. At the same time, journalists, citizens and politicians should be vigilant when lobbyists present their goals as serving the public interest or greater good.”
About the author: Iskander De Bruycker is a postdoctoral researcher and lecturer at the University of Antwerp. Before, he was affiliated with the European University Insitute in Florence, the University of Aarhus and the University of Amsterdam. Iskander's research activities lie in the fields of European public policy, political communication and interest group politics. Iskander teaches classes on European integration, EU public affairs, interest group politics and research methods.