About a year ago, I traced the evolution of expectations about what responsible lobbying should look like. Back then I argued that the climate emergency is driving a substantive re-evaluation of what it means for companies to engage with the political sector in a responsible manner. The claim: what was once a basic expectation -primarily advanced by a small band of good governance NGOs — to lobby in compliance with the law and offer some transparency is morphing into a set of much more substantive, specific expectations to use corporate political influence as an active lever for pro-climate policies. And these demands are made by a much broader, more effective multi-stakeholder alliance. For a more detailed elaboration of this argument see also here.
The most recent COP27 summit provides yet more intriguing evidence of how the climate emergency is driving a deep transformation of what responsible lobbying means. Here are two examples:
From “support what is underway” to “help figure out what is necessary”
A high-profile UN expert commission put corporate political responsibility front and center of its keenly awaited recommendations against greenwashing. The group of industry representatives and civil society experts not only reaffirmed that responsible corporate climate stewardship must entail aligning corporate lobbying with the Paris Goals of reducing emissions to stay plausibly within a 1.5-degree warming scenario. It also added a very interesting innovative twist that demands an even more proactive approach: companies should not just explain how they support existing climate policies — the gold standard of responsible conduct up to now. Instead, they should actively identify in their reporting the specific public policies and enabling environment that they need to play their part in achieving Paris and then provide an account for how they seek to help bring these policies about through their political engagement — a step change in substantive expectations.
LinkedIn advocacy and service providers in the crosshairs
The summit also confirmed with a vengeance the trend towards paying much more attention to the conduct and responsibilities of the many specialized service providers that are hired to actually do most of the lobbying and influencing: PR agencies, lobbying and law firms. A concerted effort by scientists and activists, for example, put the spotlight on one particular PR firm that was hired by the organizers to handle summit communications and at the same time doubles as a major lobby planner for the fossil industry. This campaign even included ads on the social network for professional networking, LinkedIn targeted specifically at this one firm’s employees. It encouraged them to take a stance and pressure their employer to drop fossil clients, thus blending state-of-the-art online micro-targeting with the expanding strategy to activate a new generation of (supposedly) more politically-mobilizable employees to work towards change from within.
Yes, but….. – an unsettling outlook
The glass-half-full perspective is that we are seeing positive dynamics towards more stakeholder responsibilities, better incentive systems, more action on all fronts when it comes to corporate political responsibility in the midst of the climate emergency. Yet, the overall big picture is less upbeat.
The gulf between expectations and outcomes, between pressure and response is growing bigger rather than smaller. COP 27 has not delivered on the mitigation side. The Paris goals were barely re-affirmed amidst the presence of hundreds of fossil-fuel-affiliated lobbyists. Emission trends are off-track, time is running out. And there are ominous signs that a new generation of climate activists in several countries is losing patience, moving into ever more desperate and disruptive forms of civil disobedience and direct action. The readiness to leave or forgo the negotiation table and search for pressure points in the street is as deplorable as it is unsurprising.
And this leaves the “holding to account for responsible corporate lobbying — in a delicate spot. While expectations for the greening of corporate political responsibilities deepen and widen, appropriate conduct still fails to materialize at a sufficient scale and is ever more often called out at both aggregate and individual corporate level with strong evidence and eerie precision. Finding the least responsible PR agency or most egregious brown lobbying campaign is all but a google search away. A radicalised movement in search of effective leverage in conjunction with stronger evidence on individual culpabilities does not bode well for fair weather reforms and a patient updating of lobbying conduct. Unresponsive corporate lobbyists and uncritical lobbying service providers might be in for some stormy times.
Dieter Zinnbauer Dieter is a Marie-Skłodowska-Curie Research Fellow at the Department of Management, Society and Communication at Copenhagen Business School. He works on issues of corporate political strategy.