Lobbyists advocate. That’s what we do. Seldom do professional advocates pick and choose their advocacy topics. The C-suite assigns issues to in-house lobbyists. Clients, especially long-term ones, assign issues to their contract lobbyists.

In this blog I consider how lobbyists can maintain their sense of personal decency while promoting issues: 1) in which they do not believe, or perhaps worse, 2) that provoke public hostility against their principals and themselves, personally.

I have advocated for the utterly idiotic, as well as for the sound; all assigned to me by the C-suite. As an example of C-suite political folly, upon correctly sensing my obstinate refusal to accept any amendment, no matter how reasonable, was principal-ordered stubbornness, a Michigan lawmaker out loud mocked and shamed me.[2] As to public hostility, while our proposal was approved by state and federal executive agency experts, the project, my principal, and I were so hysterically attacked by the public, that my principal abandoned a technically sound but politically controversial project.

How then do lobbyists differ from shills, flacks, agitators, and even “politicians” (as distinguished from lawmakers as public servants)?

We differ from the above because we adhere to a system of externally imposed, legally enforceable ethics laws and rules, and to the unwritten rules of lobbying. If we breach written laws then we are punished, criminally or civilly. If we breach unwritten rules, often called etiquette, we are professionally shunned. The lobbyists’ virtue is complying with these clearly defined ethics laws.

Adherence to these formal processes protects the integrity of lawmakers, the legislative process, and the public’s confidence in how laws are made. And ethics laws are unrelated to subjective, infinitely debatable, conflicts among subjective moralities, personal preferences, and client motives.

To critics, the thought of lobbyists’ ethics, like legal ethics, is an oxymoron. They would expect that a system such as in Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power[3] would be the lobbyists’ guide to conduct.[4] Yet, Mr. Greens’s writings in my view promote political and ethical conduct that would undermine an advocate’s trustwortiness and destroy his or her career.

Our initial answer to, “How could you do this to the [complete sentence with an emotion-tugging term such as “children”]?, is this: Everyone, regardless of who they are, is entitled to professional help through an often-incomprehensible legal system. Also, consider offering to your inquisitor the criminal defense counsel’s perspective: “It is not my duty to judge the guilt or innocence of my client but to represent him to the best of my ability.”[5]

Hopefully, you always will be fully on board with whatever your principal instructs you to do. However, if you stay in lobbying long enough, one day you may also find yourself advocating for the idiotic, the controversial, or positions in which you don’t believe.

In all cases, you will give your principal your best political and procedural advice. But if your advice is rejected, then you either must advocate as requested, as long as it’s legal, or leave your principal behind. Over my 40 years as a government employee and in-house corporate or contract lobbyist, I have done both the distasteful and twice quit employers.

Protecting your own personal reputation for professional integrity is your most important consideration. Normally, leaving a dishonorable principal won’t harm you among those who understand our profession.[6]

As I wrote In Praise of State Legislative Lobbying (Blog: September 15, 2021), “Ours is a worthy profession. We represent our principals, honorably and within the law, thereby upholding their vital constitutional rights, contributing to the creation of public policy and the body of law, and advancing a constitutional role of which we have every right to be proud.”


[1] Theme for the title of this post borrowed from Francis A. Shaeffer, How Should We Then Live?: The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture (1979).
[2] Let novices know that clients at times refuse their lobbyists policy alternatives demanding all or nothing, that is, we “Come back with [y]our shield or on it” meaning “either you will win the battle, or you will die and then be carried back home on your shield.”  (accessed February 14, 2022) https://answerstoall.com/technology/what-does-come-back-with-your-shield-or-on-it-mean/.
[3] Robert Greene, The 48 Laws of Power (New York: Penguin Books, 1998) Currently in its 69th printing, Greene makes Machiavelli comparatively look like nunnery novice. 4.7 out of 5 stars, 36,400 ratings Part of: The Modern Machiavellian Robert Greene (7 books).
[4] While Mr. Greene’s writings may not produce the kind of people you would want your kids to grow up to be, over 450 pages it reveals seemingly effective methods to control people and circumstances. I personally have never witnessed the kinds of behavior of which he writes in a legislative setting, although I expect it exists in corporations and industry associations.
[5] Criminal defense lawyer direct quote to me mentioning a murderer he successfully defended.
[6] Normally! A Lobby School student, at the time a corporate vice-president in government affairs, as an in-house whistleblower,  informed the company’s general counsel of unethical behavior by one in the C-suite. As to the behavior which he exposed internally, the FBI came in, political scandal ensued, newspaper articles were written, a billion-dollar contract abrogated, and his world-name employer has made sure no one would ever hire him again.

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