Lobbying in Times of Covid-19
It goes without saying that governments are not only responsible for handling the covid crisis but are also liable for the damage caused by various restrictive measures they introduce for limiting the spread of the virus. Airlines, travel agencies, truck drivers and hotel owners are among those requesting compensations. Bars, restaurants, small and medium-sized businesses, and even self-employed entrepreneurs are pinning their hopes on the state for financial support. It is not, however, only their allegedly bottomless pockets why the state, federal and local governments became much more important for both the economy and the society as ever before.
The state of emergency has changed many traditional institutions in a way, which was unimaginable before through imposed border and retail closures, lockdowns, and movement restrictions. Counter-epidemic precautions were for obvious reasons not predictably planned (at least for the first wave of the pandemic), hence, each rule and each exception from it has been drafted, executed and sometimes reworked as we went along. To paraphrase a well-known quote: No man’s life, liberty or property are safe while the epidemic is in session.
For public affairs broadly speaking, this meant an unprecedented challenge. Positively enough, the Covid pandemic has changed the way public administration works, made it more digital, and leveled a step between policymakers and the private sector when it comes to the usage of digital communication tools. Some say that digital advocacy and social network campaigns are replacing the human factor even in government relations, though I don’t believe (or want to believe) that distance lobbying will replace the traditional and personal dialogue between the lobbyist and the lobbied. For traditional lobbying conducted on a personal basis, the social distancing rules and video conferences are not the most helpful. But perhaps a lobbyist who has managed to successfully influence legislation only while just zooming from his or her living room would say otherwise.
This crisis, in my opinion, will cement the position of those lobbyists who are already well-established, have developed personal relationships, and understand the policies from within. Whereas for those who are lacking behind with their networks and knowledge, 2020 might have been a lost year. The covid crisis also boosted the relevance and lobbying power of trade associations. A sudden need for efficient and just-in-time communication between businesses and policymakers required a portion of goodwill, discipline to align and to find a common ground. Extraordinary measures were drafted by governments for the sake of efficiency behind closed doors and voted mostly in fast-tracked procedures. The window of opportunity for lobbyists was very narrow. If policymakers did revise proposed restrictive measures during their preparation, they likely did so when pondering a broader interest or for well-founded reasons.
This year, many business leaders appreciated the value of public affairs for reasons other than classical regulatory matters. The need for better understanding of what the public authorities are going to do has drawn CEOs’ attention to the work of their own firms’ public affairs departments or external agencies more than ever before. Politics suddenly became extremely relevant for achieving their KPIs, sometimes even for the very survival of their firm. Governmental decisions now became crucial for day-to-day operations such as logistics (borders, lockdowns), human resources (home-office, visa policy, school closing…), finance (tax changes) or sales (retail closures).
The year 2020 has been extremely busy for both in-house and contractual lobbyists. Sometimes we felt, that miracles are expected from us. Working from a distance with only a handful of available information and combining it with previous experience and understanding of the situation has also been a lesson for us. We still have a long road ahead, but feel well-equipped for 2021.