Regional Roundtable: Washington DC

In this second year of its Regional Forums, PRWeek will focus on seven top markets: Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, the Bay Area, Washington, DC, Atlanta, and Texas.

In this second year of its Regional Forums, PRWeek will focus on seven top markets: Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, the Bay Area, Washington, DC, Atlanta, and Texas.

For each region, leading PR pros from a variety of agencies, corporations, and nonprofits will take part in a roundtable discussion about the PR issues affecting them and their peers. Julia Hood and Douglas Quenqua were in Washington, DC, for this year's fifth PRWeek Regional Forum

For the roundtable as it appeared in PRWeek, click here.

Read the unabridged transcript below:

Tom Galvin (Verisign): I'm very interested in how we stop making PR folks act just like PR folks and make them business people. Sometimes PR people diminish themselves, first of all, because they don't think they know as much as the person on the other side of the table who happens to be the quote-unquote content person. They're intimidated about not knowing as much. And two, for those of us who come from journalism, the lofty pursuit of the dollar is just, we're [supposedly] above all that, we're there only for the communications side. I think both of those attitudes sometimes marginalize what public relations people are: business people who are in charge of communications.

Torod Neptune (Waggener Edstrom): One of the things that I'm concerned about as we look at staffing here in Washington, is this concept of what the right mix of talent is and where it comes from. A much more sophisticated expectation of what we bring to the table. Less PR with the bells and whistles and more issues management and affecting public policy through influencing public opinion. I find it challenging as we sit down and begin to think through where we get that talent. Because I don't think most clients would expect us to get that from an agency.

Galvin (Verisign): A lot of that comes from something you did and a lot of other people here did, which is political campaigns.

Neptune (Wag Ed): I think campaigns have a lot to do with that. I think there's a lot to be said for the skills you learn in the campaign environment. It's about managing issues and constituencies and diverse groups. I think that's of value.

Julia Hood (PRWeek): Let's get a picture of what the market is like in terms of where the business is coming from. The perception is that this is a company town; everything comes back to government and associations. What is the diversity of the industry base here? What else is there to this area?

Jeff Joseph (Consumer Electronics Association): This is an amazingly diverse place. There's an association for everything here. It's a huge, huge universe. Obviously the government and public affairs dominate, but again there are associations and interest groups who are doing spectacular work on a wide range of issues.

Margery Kraus (APCO): I think in a lot of places the work of communications firms is geared to that marketplace. But in Washington it's not. It's not like a Minneapolis firm being hired to promote things in Minneapolis. It's a much broader and much more sophisticated practice. It's the nature of where we are that causes the confluence of people all over the world looking for help here. And people [based] here are kind of looking to make statements outside, so it's a much different kind of nexus.

Hood (PRWeek): So you need a broad level of expertise.

Greg Mueller (Creative Response Concepts): Well that and the fact that a lot of companies now, including foreign companies, are trying to do things to build a corporate reputation in and around influence makers here. A lot of them never worked in Washington before other than that one lobbyist they had or a law firm they had. Now we're doing corporate responsibility campaigns around financial issues, around security issues, around the whole post-9/11 thing, building a strong defense. All those things I think are coming more to light and giving all of us a lot of new opportunities.

Tom Galvin (Verisign): The bar gets raised a little in Washington, like she was saying in Minneapolis...

Margery Kraus (APCO): Just for the record, I like Minneapolis.

Tom Galvin (Verisign): If you're promoting a product or a company I think you have to prove one more thing here. In Washington you have to show context. Here you have to go to that 50,000-foot level to demonstrate its relativity to the world and the major issues the country is looking at. Only then I think can you be successful in Washington.

Carolyn Tieger (Porter Novelli): There's really one issue in Washington, and that's public policy. And whether you're a foreign government or a company, the bottom line is, how do we move the needle in terms of affecting policy one way or the other?

Karen Doyne (Burson Marsteller): Another important part of the client base here is the legal community. I've always been told, anyway, that there are more lawyers per capita here than in any other city. In terms of issues management, public affairs, crisis management, that's very important. And again, as Margery pointed out, we're brought on to help them with issues for clients who may be in Chicago or San Diego or Beijing.

Peter Hamm (Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence): There's [also] a growing biotech industry in this area; there's a struggling manufacturing sector in Baltimore. Just like a lot of Washington insiders forget to think like people outside the Beltway, you sometimes forget that there are a lot of people even inside the Beltway who really have nothing to do with public policy.

Marcus (Harbour): The base here is incredibly diverse. First of all there are DC regional businesses that need all kinds of traditional communications services. There are associations that have ongoing issues. We are driven in a crisis sense by issues of government. This cycle it could be energy, next cycle it could be healthcare, next cycle it could be tort reform. Also Washington has become incredibly important in terms of transactions. One can't do a large business transaction without getting it approved by audiences in Washington.

Mohit Ghose (America's Health Insurance Plans): Well I think that's a really good transition. I think that's a really good point -- what we do here in town I think has gone nationwide. The whole concept of grassroots and grassroots mobilization and taking your issues directly to the American people and making them get involved no matter what the issue is, whether its widgets or its healthcare. I think over the past few years that component of what we do has become more and more important. I think that's what groups like mine look for in terms of an agency, to help us get out there with our message and mobilize the grassroots and the grasstops. I know those words are so overused, but I think that's a specialty-type scenario that has really sprung up in a big way fairly recently. It's definitely been something that they're doing more and more, at least for industries that have nationwide issues.

Kraus (APCO): There's a whole new industry that's sprung up around issues of trust. And then you think about Sarbanes Oxley and you think about the kind of help that needs to be given to companies that are looking to manage what was traditionally a financial practice. So there's nowhere in the world now where people are doing international commerce that is not impacted by Washington. The other piece of business we haven't mentioned which I find enormously significant right now is the post-9/11 security business. You talk about that market -- people now everywhere in the world are looking to sell the government technology equipment, expertise, anti-terrorism -- we formed a whole group around it.

Mueller (CRC): I think globalization has really made DC probably the most important market for companies, whether they are based here or based internationally. Look at the decisions in the EU, The WTO, trade policy. And a lot of that starts with massaging everything all the way back to corporate reputation, to opinion leaders, all the way to direct impact along those lines. I think that's a major issue.

Galvin (Verisign): I think it's also important to point out what's unique about Washington. I don't think, in Chicago or if you're in Austin, you're as often to sit in a room with a PR person, a lobbyist and a lawyer. And I think that's becoming in many respects the norm.

Neptune (Wag Ed): Last week we had an existing agency client come into town, and they brought their top Washington legal counsel; they're internal lobbyist, who's based in the state where they're headquartered; their corporate officers, who are responsible for this global issue that we were talking about, and three others from their internal legal staff. It was really interesting to me that they have really brought to the table [all these people], and they wanted our best advice on how to deal with an international problem. I do think that kind of collaboration is unique.

Joseph (CEA): We've talked a lot about what makes Washington unique, but we've also touched on an important point, campaign experience. What I found is the experience I have from working in the campaign mode is so applicable in everything I do. So it's not just the work you do in Washington, it's the training and the skills you bring to address those issues.

Melissa Skolfield (Office of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi): That's exactly right. When you work on a political campaign, you really have to come from an experience where you can plot a strategy, plot a communications plan, you can both put a plan together long term and be ready for that plan to be disrupted at a moment's notice. That's what a lot of people in Washington bring to the table.

Joseph (CEA): It's a really broad skill set. We use skills like coalition building across a wide range of events. It's even the messaging. The way that we in Washington develop messages is applicable across a whole range of activities. If people are reading this transcript and thinking, 'Why would I look at a Washington agency or look for talent in Washington,' sure the broadly defined public affairs issues management, that's critical, but the skill set that we can apply to - there's no reason why you should go to a NY firm for financial PR, because there are darn smart people here who would bring a different perspective and be able to do it. There's no reason you should go to LA to do a product launch or Silicon Valley, because there are darn smart people here who can plot out a campaign to help you reach your goal.

Galvin (Verisign): To Jeff's point, how many people here have interacted with a company whose press strategy was dictated by their last press release?

Tieger (PN):I think that the campaign mentality is now the preferred approach not just by our Washington clients but also outside Washington, because it says we're in there to win and that's what it's all about. It's being results-oriented. Whether you're sitting around a table putting together an integrated campaign with lobbyists or, as an agency, you're asked to put one together on your own, the bottom line is they want somebody who helps them get from here to there and can help them deliver.

Mueller (CRC): And will manage the hiccups along the way.

Hamm (Brady): I think that the principle thing that the political campaigning business teaches you is anticipation of what can go wrong. The American public has been lead to believe that political campaigns are brilliant and slick and efficient and you always are doing exactly what you want to do. [Laughter] But the reality is, it's constant chaos. But I'd like to talk about something I think is a real threat to what we do for a living - the decline in civility in politics. It's starting to pay a toll on the firms where we work. Political parties, political establishment [have decided] that if you have X percent Democrats or X percent Republicans in your firm, we should not send any work your way and we should tell our friends not to send any work your way. It's taken a while for the viciousness of politics to get to that but you read more and more about it these days where folks are jettisoning their Republican or Democratic lobbyists because they were seen as behind the transom on warnings that other people won't work with you.

Joseph (CEA): Our sister association was one of the first to be hit by those rules. The current head of the Electronics Industry Alliance, a close relative of ours, a Democratic member -- when he was offered the position congressman [Tom] Delay went nuts and said they'd never work with the EIA, and it's taken a long time to repair those relationships.

Hamm (Brady): We're all willing to advocate for a cause as long as it's not shameful or sordid. It doesn't mean we can't cross the line. In my years at the Interior Department I worked with lots of political experts who had worked on both sides of the Arctic Wildlife refuge drilling issue repeatedly. Two years working for drilling, two years working against drilling.

Mueller (CRC): I could see that when you have a former senator or ex-congressman going in to be the head of an organization. We're not having that experience. What we're finding is we're probably viewed a little more based on the policy work we did in years past. We're a Republican firm but we partner with a lot of firms on the other side of the aisle and bring kind of an integrated program. But I actually think what clients are mostly interested in is knowledge and a company's ability to understand an issue. And one thing about Washington people, if they come from Capitol Hill or from working in campaigns, they've got to understand any number of issues at any one given time. So I'm finding more of an interest in what do you bring to the table, not just in terms of your communications and media relationships, but how fast can you pick up on what we're doing in a crisis or the issue I have to manage.

Galvin (Verisign): I think Greg's exactly right. I think at the end of the day most firms care about winning. And with most firms, you find that they probably have perspectives on both sides, in some instances because they chose to do that so they'd be well connected. But in most instances because that's just where the talent was.

Tieger (PN):We do not have a lobbying firm and we consider ourselves very bi-partisan. And whether it's working with a Quinn Gillespie or working with Dewey Square, it has not been an issue at all.

Kraus (APCO): This comes back to one of the things Tom was saying at the very beginning. Where do you draw the talent from when you are trying to provide strategic perspectives so that you're at the board table or the C-Suite? There's huge opportunity for people who have our perspective and a broader skill set to add tremendous value in those situations because most people on the corporate side are tone deaf when it comes to having the peripheral vision.

Hood (PRWeek): How is easy is that?

Kraus (APCO): I had a very interesting experience over the past year. I joined the corporate board of a very big company. I feel - I'm not that smart. But you're at the table and you say things and people have never thought of it! It's a very interesting thing. So I think there's really a lot of opportunity if we can penetrate the board room or the C-suite with the kind of skill set we have. But then it comes back to where do you find the people.

Marcus (Harbour): We are basically known as a Democratic firm, but we have partnered with a Republican firm, all of whose partners came from the Tom Delay world. When clients need those kinds of services we can offer those. When clients need those kinds of services we can offer those. On the other hand to our own camps, we can offer ourselves up - it has worked really well. As I mentioned we are part owned by the law firm Swidler Berlin. It's been an incredibly interesting experience. There has been a lot of demand to bring it all to the table. And the one thing I find different from my 14 years at a big agency is I find myself more often than not selling business to general counsels. Those folks have now reached the position where they understand both the legal implication and the policy implication.

Skolfield (Pelosi): One of the great things about Washington is it's a really great mentoring town. Everybody had an intern who went on to be somebody who that person became glad they were taking your calls. When I went to HHS as a deputy assistant secretary it was the first time I'd ever managed anyone. And on the Hill, you're lucky if you manage just one person. So I had to learn how to manage 15 people, then I was managing 37 people, and I was bringing folks in from the Hill who had really good strategic sense and a lot of campaign experience but no familiarity with public service announcements, or no familiarity with publications, because that's just not something they dealt with. So I think everybody here probably has a story about finding some really bright 20 year-old, bringing them up, and then bolstering them with the skills that they didn't have.

Doyne (Burson): The recognition by senior executives of the value of public relations -it's great. But I think it also has a dark side. The bad news is that they [now] overestimate the extent to which PR can solve their problems. I think we have another level of education to be done to remind our clients or bosses that solving issues and crises is about what you do much more than what you say.

Ghose (AHIP): We are moving much more towards an issue focus in the way we do our PR as opposed to doing PR for PR's sake. People want to see the substance now. Whether it's a reporter or a Congressman or a staffer, you have to be able to demonstrate that you know the underlying stuff. The stuff matters.

Skolfield (Pelosi): You have to be able to say to the client, "Don't do that." And I think when you've developed that ability to talk to a member of Congress or cabinet secretary that way, that translates to the corporate world and makes you a very effective counselor.

Hamm (Brady): Clients are insatiable. The business has gotten so competitive that you can t successfully pitch and land a new client without talking about performing miracles. I just finished what I thought was a successful failure for my organization -- the sun-setting of the assault weapons ban. We knew we were going to lose and what we wanted to do was maximize the amount of press attention that we got on it. We landed 106 daily newspaper editorials in support of renewing the ban, and we just came from a board meeting today where they said, "Too bad we couldn't have gotten 200." The world gets more and more insatiable as the media business gets hotter and more competitive.

Joseph (CEA): You know, sometimes you have a communications problem and other times you just have a problem. From a client perspective - when I'm interviewing agencies I'm not looking for miracles. I just want someone to help. I was on a conference call and I misplaced my agenda. I made a passing comment and 20 seconds later that agenda appeared on a fax. And that just showed a great dedication to client service. That's what I want. That's what I'm looking for.

Hood (PRWeek): Has anyone hired an agency this past year?

Ghose (AHIP): We did. One of the things our CEO was focused on throughout the merger was never going dark. We were always up. Our industry is one that has a lot going on on any given day. And in an election year there is more happening in healthcare than you can even imagine. We re-bid our contract, hired a new firm - a couple new firms. You have the Democratic side and the Republican side. And for an organization such as mine, it's very important to be bipartisan.

Mueller (CRC): You're seeing companies want less agency competition and more agency cooperation now. As we get better and more into the boardroom and into the C-suite, the expectations go up. And we've talked about this a lot in our firm, what we try to do, [is] let them see a little sausage being made. Whether that's a weekly call, whether that's "here's what we're doing this week" -- let them see you not just as a PR guy. Let them see you as a strategist, a counselor, and part of the decision-making process of their business. And when you do that, you'll see how fast they drop "How many articles did we get?"

Ghose (AHIP): Someone brought up the whole concept of being more of a consultant today rather than just generating clips. I've been on the inside my whole career, I've never worked at an agency....

Mueller (CRC): Do you want to?

[Laughter]

Ghose (AHIP): What I look to my agency for is more of the larger project work. We do a lot of our own crisis management, we do a lot of our own strategic thinking, but what is good for me is having people come in so I can bounce ideas off people and have them shoot me down or say, "That may work if you tweak it this way."

Doyne (Burson): Somebody who has the outside perspective.

Hood (PRWeek): That's a great segue actually...

Galvin (Verisign): If there is a bubble out there, I would throw out that the bubble is in the public sector. All these companies came to Washington after 9/11 and think they're going to get all of this government and public sector work. And some of them are and some of them aren't. Do folks think there is a public sector bubble out there that's going to impact the PR world?

Skolfield (Pelosi): I don't. Not from the perspective of HHS. I mean, you're going to keep running diabetes campaigns, and sex ed campaigns, and everything else under the shining sun.

Ghose (AHIP): And now you've got bio-terrorism campaigns and a whole bunch of other things to add to that.

Skolfield (Pelosi): Yeah. That work will just keep going.

Mueller (CRC): Were doing two corporate reputation campaigns right now just to see if they can collect some of that business just to build their image. I don't see that work going away

Hamm (Brady): But it's all going to Halliburton. [Laughter]

Kraus (APCO): I think people hire you because they expect you to be faithful to your mission, which sometimes is delivering tough love. I often get brought in by our clients to say things to the CEO they don't particularly want to. So you know, they're pushing you in the door while they stand behind you.

Kraus (APCO): I've been fired for that too. I don't want to say that it's all...

Neptune (Wag Ed): But there are a lot of firms that still operate that way in this town.

Hamm (Brady): Just to defend my remark, I'll say that I remember a dear, dear lady, a software vendor client who was selling some marginally interesting education software, and this dear friend whom I loved reached over during a pitch and said, 'I can just see you with Katie Couric.' And from that moment on, I was the guy who was going to suddenly get her on with Katie Couric. And it was never going to happen.

Tieger (PN):You've got to understand the [CEO's] business objectives from the get go; not just a knowledge of their industry, but really understanding what their bottom line goal is.

Ghose (AHIP): There's something I'd like to hear from you guys. There's been a lot of talk about the campaign experience today. If you look at five years of Patient's Bill of Rights debates on Capitol Hill, we ran a campaign. It was an all-out, 24/7: you dealt with the issues, you had rapid response, and you did everything you had to. And I wanted to get a perspective if you guys have gone to clients with more of that rather than, "Here's a PR plan."

Marcus (Harbour): We are running campaigns, usually for ideas or issues rather than individuals. I think Carolyn touched on this. For most of the work that we do, there is something that constitutes as an Election Day. Whether it's a decision by the FCC, something that's going to go on in a congressional committee, and in the end either you win that election or you lose it. And there are very few campaigns that I've lost and felt good about or campaigns that I've won and felt badly about.

Tieger (PN):What can be really discouraging though is when, as a PR professional, you really do your part of the job. You deliver those 100 editorials that really get Congress' attention. But you can't do the work of...

Marcus (Harbour): You do need to be sensitive to clients in that case in the sense that, if you've done your job and you've done it well, then the worst thing that you can do is look at your client and say, 'Look at these 50 op-eds I placed. Didn't I do a great job?' Because in the end, it isn't about the 50 op-eds you placed, it's about winning. So I always try and teach folks: 'we've lost the battle and we've done something well, but this is not the time to promote the work we've done. It's time to...'

Hamm (Brady): Double the size of the project! [Laughter]

Hood (PRWeek): On that point I have a very important benchmark question to ask. Has anyone been hiring over the past year? And has the talent been there?

Hamm (Brady): I think that there's a good talent pool of young people at entry level and just above entry level right now. I can't speak to higher levels because that's my job.

Galvin (Verisign): It's going to get better in three or four months, too, after the election when you're going to have the first wave of Bush 1's who are going to leave. That churn is about to happen.

Mueller (CRC): Our company has a good mix of former agency people, and probably way too many former press secretaries on either side of the aisle. And we do find that that helps when we're making these kind of campaign-oriented pitches to corporations. No question. I'm already looking at how the candidates are running their campaigns from a PR perspective. And then we go find that talent -- that's succeeded for us in the past.

Doyne (Burson): In Washington we tend to hire people who are already very accomplished in other careers, whether it's on the Hill, whether it's journalism, whatever. So often you find people who are terrific but they've never managed, they've never dealt with a client. So a really key part of the challenge is helping those people succeed in an agency environment and adding those additional skills on top of the skills they already have.

Kraus (APCO): I would add a couple skill sets to that, too. About 50% of our people have never been in an agency. Jane Garvey ran a lot of people at the FAA, but she was never in an agency environment. And she's a diversely talented person, so this doesn't really relate to her. But in some other cases where you take people off the Hill and they were committee chairmen, it's also the skill of having them understand that they don't pick and choose the issues in the same way they ran their committee. So you have to have a very good mentoring program, even if the person you're bringing in is 55 and has been working a long time. You have to have a very good and honest recruitment program that allows you to screen people who will succeed or fail based upon working in a very different kind of environment. There's a lot of talent, and it's not limited to Washington. We're mostly in capital cities. We're doing the same thing in Beijing that we're doing in Washington.

Neptune (Wag Ed): The challenge for us is people who understand business from the strategic side. I think in some ways that can be a blind spot here in Washington because you have so many people who are so heavily immersed in the policy piece of it.

Joseph (CEA): We have a great talent pool here in Washington, but I'd be remiss if I didn't mention this: There remains a lack of minorities involved in this industry. I know we're unequally represented here - this is not an accurate representation of the market in general. And it's strange because in Washington there's a higher percentage of people of color who are in law firms, a higher percentage of people of color doing wonderful things in government. I don't know what it is, why they're not generally attracted to this industry.

Skolfield (Pelosi): Here's my experience: You bring talented African-American PR professionals in and everyone around you says, "Great, you can do African-American media, you can lobby the Congressional Black Caucus." You know, and who wants to put with that?

Ghose (AHIP): I think mentoring matters more than we can possibly give it credit for. I know I wasn't hired because I was a minority. But if I didn't have the mentors that I'd had...that to me has been the most important part of my career, regardless of skin color.

Galvin (Verisign): But it can't be all that because if it's true in other regions then there's something beyond it just being specific to DC.

Ghose (AHIP): I think mentoring matters more than we can possibly give it credit for. I know I wasn't hired because I was a minority. But if I didn't have the mentors that I'd had...that to me has been the most important part of my career, regardless of skin color.

Kraus (APCO): Can I turn this back and ask the people the people in this room who represent these constituencies to give us some perspective. I don't know if maybe you have thought about things that could be done differently or places that maybe are a little more nontraditional places to look or recruit.....

Neptune (Wag Ed): I think in some ways it's the lack of access to the right markets. And on the other side of it is the ones who are out there tend to be very highly coveted or generally highly paid because they are well thought of. But then I do think there's a lack of understanding of really how to cultivate talent -- whether that's talent that sits in front of you every day or talent that you want to cultivate form somewhere else.

Kraus (APCO): Our recruiter is a minority and it's still very hard to...

Galvin (Verisign): There's the same disparity at the journalism schools, at the communications degree level in colleges -- in other words, where does it start?

Joseph (CEA): That's an excellent question. It seems to me that there's a problem on both sides. I suspect that it's not thought of as a career path as much for minorities. Whether it's through journalism or PR in general. I've spoken to some of the PR classes at local universities, and I rarely see a minority face in the crowd. And I don't know what the root issue is. I don't know why it's not an attractive option. Maybe it's partly our fault. Someone talked earlier about we don't take ourselves seriously enough, or people don't take us seriously enough. We're still seen as PR flacks...

Mueller (CRC): We need a corporate reputation campaign. [Laughter]

Hamm (Brady): Well let me tell you what I can do for you. [Laughter]

Galvin (Verisign): Can you get me with Katie Couric?

Joseph (CEA): But let's not let ourselves off too easily either. I mean, it's great that you have a person of color recruiting, are they going into those markets? Or to your point, when we see a person of color, are we already pigeon-holing then into a certain skill, ignoring the larger skill set?

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