ANALYSIS: Public Affairs - It's not business as usual, but therewill be work to do

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

year).



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

Davis.



"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

events."



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

country."



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

for them.



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

those funds.



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.



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