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Lobbyists and the Outsourcing of Public Diplomacy

March 12, 2015

At the end of January the Corporate Europe Observatory put out Spin Doctors to the Autocrats: How European PR Firms Whitewash Repressive Regimes

It’s an interesting catalogue of cases of how authoritarian regimes use lobbyists, PR companies or legal firms to exert influence in Brussels or clean up their image in Europe. The instruments employed range from op-eds, straight lobbying, junkets, editing Wikipedia, creating think tanks and ‘friends of’ groups. CEO are calling for tighter regulation of lobbyists both at EU and national levels. One interesting point is that while there are one set of rules in Brussels if you are doing lobbying they don’t apply if you’re doing nation-branding work.

This raises a broader question of when and why countries outsource public diplomacy.   Three, not mutually exclusive, hypotheses

  1. It’s about the nature of the political system. Professionalized commercial lobbying and representation appears first in the US nearly a century ago. An open but complex political system requires specialist expertise. [Francis Fukuyama recently argued for the similarity of the EU system to that in Washington DC.
  2. It’s about limits in the capacity of the state’s representation either in general or to deal with a particular project or situation.   Commercial representation offers a surge capacity with specific expertise. CEO make the point that say PR companies hired by Russia work directly to the Kremlin and not through the MFA hence providing flexibility.
  3. It’s about creating distance between the country and the activity.       An embassy that says we’re great is less credible than an apparently independent group.

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