Patients rights legislation used to be a really big deal. So was
campaign finance reform, our nation's energy policy, and a prescription
drug benefit for seniors. Funny how things change.
Legislative and public priorities were turned upside down on September
11 when hijackers sent those planes hurtling into multiple pivots of
American strength. President Bush abruptly declared terrorism the new
focus of his administration, and a lockstep Congress followed suit. Ever
since, the government has rededicated itself almost exclusively to the
businesses of repairing and punishing.
This is frightening news for everyone, but it is particularly harrowing
for the public affairs industry. Issues that have spent years gaining
enough momentum to reach the senate floor were suddenly put on hold, and
it's not clear when they'll resurface. Public affairs practitioners
aren't quite complaining - their priorities have shifted as much as
anyone's - but with few legislative battles on the horizon, many fear
they may have little to do for the foreseeable future.
Still, many agency heads are reserving judgment, hesitant to draw
conclusions about what's coming next for the industry. "I think its
really way too early to venture a guess," says Hill & Knowlton CEO Tom
Hoog. "I don't see a clear picture out there."
APCO CEO Margery Kraus, who was en route to Washington from Boston's
Logan Airport when American Airlines flight 11 plowed into the World
Trade Center, agrees: "I think it's impossible to know yet exactly what
the impact is."
Legislation on hold
But certain legislative sacrifices seem inevitable. The fight for HMO
reform and a Medicare prescription drug benefit have been declared all
but finished for the current legislative session (which now seems likely
to end on time in October, an extreme rarity in a non-election
These are two issues that yielded much work for public affairs agencies
and kept several advocacy groups busy. Each will react differently.
The AARP (formerly the American Association of Retired People) had
considered a prescription drug benefit its top priority until the
eleventh. Thanks to a sense of crisis as much as any congressional
reality, it no longer is.
"That campaign is on hold," says director of communications Lisa
"This is still an important issue for the AARP because it is an
important issue for our members. In due time, I'm sure the President and
Congress will take up the issue and address it again." But for now, says
Davis, the primary focus of the AARP, which represents over 35 million
people in the US, is how it can help its members deal with the attack
and recover a sense of safety.
She notes, however, that the attacks might actually strengthen the
issue's momentum in the long term. "The need (for a prescription drug
benefit) hasn't gone away, and it may even be exacerbated by these
As a non-profit advocacy group that takes its orders from members, not
clients, the AARP has the luxury of simply changing course. Agencies,
however, are not in that position. So what happens when your best-paying
client's pet issue suddenly loses its VIP status on Capitol Hill?
"In the short term, there is no question that this will have a chilling
effect on our business," sighs Fleishman-Hillard's Washington MD, Paul
Johnson. He points out that much of the public affairs business thrives
on "conflict, discussion, and debate on hot issues of the day." Now, he
says, "whether it's the so-called Social Security 'lockbox' or
environmental issues or the spending of the now-evaporating budget
surplus, all those issues - for the right reasons - fall prey to
bipartisanship in a coordinated rush to support the President and the
Feast or famine ahead?
"People who work in public affairs ought to be prepared for a long
period of inaction on issues besides defense," says Doug Pinkham,
president of the Public Affairs Council. "I was talking to one of my
members, a grassroots software company, and my advice was to focus on
pro-bono activities, to help efforts raise funds and bring people
together to support the volunteers and the victims."
Indeed, many public affairs firms are focusing for now on helping
Americans in general and their own employees return to a normal
existence (for a rundown of who's doing what, see PRWeek, September 17).
But pro-bono work, quite literally, will not pay the bills.
Luckily, in terms of market demands, this time is not so different from
others, and in the end may be less politically damaging than the dark
days of 1998, when President Clinton's impeachment hearings blocked all
legislative activity for months. This is not a shutdown; it's a shift in
priorities. And like all such shifts, it will bring with it new players
looking for advocates.
Airlines, insurance companies, hi-tech intelligence companies, security
companies, and just about everything having to do with defense has taken
center stage without much time to prepare. Some stand to expand their
businesses dramatically in the coming national efforts; others stand to
lose a lot. And all are likely to put public affairs agencies to work
Help is on the way
With remarkable speed, last Friday Congress approved $40 billion
to finance the cleanup and retaliation efforts borne of September 11 -
and many are calling it only a "down payment." Companies wanting to join
the effort will be looking for agencies that can help them tap into
Johnson, an admitted optimist, sees another way agencies can help out
while helping themselves. "Everyone right now is looking for ways in
which they can help. Corporations are seeking guidance on how they can
make contributions that are sincere and not taken as self service, and
they are looking for good counsel," he says.
One agency head (who asked not to be identified) even confirms that one
of the flight schools that allegedly gave lessons to hijackers has
signed on. This illustrates one point rather well: like many things in
the coming months, business will come from unexpected quarters.
Of course, domestic matters will resurface sooner or later, and Congress
will then revisit those issues that were dominating K Street before
terrorists change the American landscape. But in the meantime, public
affairs agencies, like everyone else, would be wise to focus on getting
the country into a working routine - guided by the understanding that
that routine may be quite a bit different than it was before.