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October 15, 2013

Lobbyists' lobbying group wants a new name that doesn't mention lobbying

WASHINGTON — The Washington association that lobbies for lobbyists thinks it's time to change its name and drop the word "lobbyists."

The leaders of the American League of Lobbyists insist that the group is making the move because its business has evolved, and members do lots more than walk the halls of Congress and try to shape legislation. They're into grassroots organizing and public affairs, and other sorts of politics and advocacy. In short, they're not just lobbyists anymore.

But these savvy professionals also know that reputation matters. And they know that theirs stinks.

"Everybody has that misconception that lobbyists are walking around with a pocketful of cash and that's about it," said Monte Ward, the group's president.

Ward, who's been a lobbyist since 1997, says he's proud of the work he does. And he promises that, even after it changes its name, the group won't run away from its work defending the interests of lobbyists and helping them be more ethical.

But as he told the group's 1,200 members in a letter announcing that a name change was under consideration, "The new brand will seek to fully represent the broad range of responsibilities that a government relations professional practices daily."

In this high-stakes rebranding exercise, the field was narrowed to two choices: the Association of Government Relations Professionals and — wait for it — the National Association of Government Relations Professionals.

The board of directors had some tense discussions, and there were a few early October focus groups to test the names with people who work in lobbying and government relations, both members of the group and non-members.

On Monday, the board finalized its decision. On Tuesday, Ward asked the group's members to approve the switch to the Association of Government Relations Professionals. (The board also approved a new tag-line: "Voice of the Lobbying, Public Policy, and Advocacy Professions.) Members will have 30 days to vote. The group's bylaws require two-thirds approval before the name can be changed.

While the association had considered changing its name in 2000, and the topic has come up a few times since then, things got serious after a long-term strategic plan was completed early this year. There were surveys and other research revealing that a majority of members no longer identify themselves only as lobbyists. Some people argued that while the group had kept up with the changing times, its name felt too narrow. Some board members noted that the move could also help draw in a few more members.

While the process appeared to be smooth, the decision to drop the term "lobbyists" wasn't unanimous.

"I understand that it carries baggage. It always has," said Howard Marlowe, who preceded Ward as president of the group and thinks the name should stay as it is.

"We're in a difficult time," he said, pointing to the conviction of prominent lobbyist Jack Abramoff — who was imprisoned for his part in a corruption scandal — and tight restrictions imposed by President Barack Obama that effectively made administration jobs off-limits to lobbyists. "But we will come out of it. It just seems to me that we need an organization that is going to constantly speak out for us, and not be ashamed of being called a lobbying organization."

Former Rep. James Walsh, R-N.Y., now a registered lobbyist and a member of the group's board, backed the change. He calls himself an "unabashed" lobbyist, but admits that getting away from the stigma associated with his current line of work "has to be part of the calculation."

"But more importantly, the industry has changed and our membership profile has changed and we want to keep up with the trends," Walsh said.

Perhaps the most notable trend: The number of registered lobbyists has been falling steadily, from 14,842 in 2007 to 12,407 at the end of last year, according to a tally of Senate filings by the Center for Responsive Politics. Many attribute the wave of "deregistrations" to the Obama administration's new rules. But with so little getting done in Congress, many lobbying types have also been pitching other parts of their portfolio.

David Rehr, a former lobbyist who now studies the business and teaches in the league's Lobbyist Certificate Program, has witnessed that change. "Today, to be really effective, a lobbyist not only has to thinking about the inside game — going to Capitol Hill — but the outside game, forming coalitions, getting third parties to augment your research or your economic arguments," coordinating media coverage, and other things, Rehr said.

The identity crisis isn't entirely new. The group's history, posted on its website, notes that soon after its founding in 1979, "A few members feared that the opprobrium too often associated with the term 'lobbyist' by media outlets and others would hinder . . . the League's work in increasing the professionalism of lobbyists."

But they stuck with the word, after determining that "enhancing the standing and reputation of lobbyists lay not in a change of terminology but in the sponsorship of meetings, events, programs, and most importantly, a set of standards that enhance the professionalism of lobbyists."

Apparently, that's not working anymore.

The current mood was evident when Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., called for lobbyists to be banned from the Capitol during the government shutdown.

Ward shot back an angry reply: "While we respect the Congressman's frustration for his constituents, we urge him to remember that all citizens, including lobbyists, have a First Amendment right to redress their grievances. Even though the federal government has shut down, the Constitution and Bill of Rights still stand."

But one well-connected Washington lobbyist who isn't a member of the group called the rebranding effort "ridiculous" and a "silly waste of time."

"It's ultimately the conduct of the people in the profession that really makes the difference," the lobbyist said. "Making it about the name almost reinforces what people think about Washington, that it's all cosmetic and about public relations."

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