Is the lobbying business shrinking or just changing? It’s hard to say.

Disclosure reports filed with Congress show that the amount of money spent on lobbying fell for the second year in a row in 2012, according to a tally from the Center for Responsive Politics. Companies and lobbying firms spent $3.3 billion on the influence game last year, down about 1 percent from 2011 — which was itself down 6 percent from the $3.5 billion record set in 2010.

That small shrinkage is notable because it marks the end of what had been more than a decade of steady growth. Many top Washington firms reported shrinking revenue in 2012, including giants Akin Gump, Ogilvy Government Relations and Cassidy & Associates, which all reported double-digit drops in lobbying revenue last year.

The most common reasons cited for the decrease are political gridlock and the distraction of a major election. Those are important, but there is also a less-cited but perhaps much bigger trend at work: The business of lobbying is changing in response to an evolving political culture and advances in communications technology, in particular fractured mass media and online social networks.

The ease of grass-roots mobilization and the importance of shaping public discussions have made time spent away from Capitol Hill a more important part of the Washington influencer’s toolbox.

“It used to be that Washington only had an army,” said Kevin O’Neill, deputy director of public policy at Patton Boggs. “Now we’ve got a navy, a coast guard and an air force.”

The change can be seen in a rash of mergers between traditional lobbying shops and public relations firms in recent years, such as the 2011 merger of Dutko Worldwide and Grayling, a public relations company.

Official reports of “lobbying” only capture time spent in direct contact with lawmakers, but employment in firms specializing in the broad category of public relations — which includes lobbying — actually increased in Washington in 2011, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The National Law Journal surveys top firms to get a broader look at their revenue from advocacy, and in many cases, the results contradict the figures reported to Congress. For example, Holland and Knight reported a 10 percent drop in revenue from lobbying Congress in 2011, to $18.7 million, but under the broader definition of advocacy — which the journal said included “all activities intended to shape laws or regulations on behalf of a client” — revenue increased to $62.9 million.

“There is an evolution in the advocacy profession,” said Rich Gold, head of the public policy group at Holland and Knight. “Back in the old days, lobbying was more of a physical contact activity where the relationships you had made you a player.”

These days, both the Obama administration and tea party lawmakers on the other side of the aisle are highly attuned to their respective constituencies, meaning that often the best way to gain influence is spending time with the base.

Obama’s reelection campaign recently announced that it will reboot as an issues advocacy group pushing his agenda, from gun control to immigration. It will probably spend big money and become a powerful force guiding Washington policy. But not a penny of that spending will be disclosed to Congress as “lobbying.”

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