ORGANIZATION CASE STUDY: AARP fortifies its clout through size and PR synergy

What do you get when you have 1,862 employees, 35 million members, and one streamlined PR message? In the AARP's case, finds Douglas Quenqua, you get one of the US' most formidable advocacies.

What do you get when you have 1,862 employees, 35 million members, and one streamlined PR message? In the AARP's case, finds Douglas Quenqua, you get one of the US' most formidable advocacies.

In a city where size matters, AARP is the biggest. Its staff, its budget, its influence, even its building. All are just plain huge. According to Fortune magazine's Power 25, AARP was the most influential force in Washington, DC from 1998 to 2000. (In 2001, the last year the list was compiled, it was second only to the NRA, which had been on an election-year spending spree.) AARP revenues in 2002 reached $636 million. The organization spent $142 million on publications alone, while $57 million went to legislation and research. Its national headquarters, two buildings occupying prime real estate in downtown Washington, DC, dominates an entire city block. Much like Congress, it has its own dining facilities and a gym for employees. Add to that 55,000 volunteers, 1,862 employees, offices in all 50 states, and 35 million dues-paying members with an unusually high rate of voter turnout, and you have a massive organization with some serious political weight to throw around. And in case you were wondering - yes, its PR function is very much in proportion. Wide-reaching communications AARP (once and occasionally still known as the American Association of Retired Persons) does a lot of communicating with its members, its employees, members of Congress, and even the general public. If you live in the US, odds are you've been told a thing or two by AARP. You might not even think about Medicare reform, prescription-drug coverage for seniors, or "saving Social Security" if it weren't for this organization. CEO and executive director Bill Novelli, himself something of an 800-pound gorilla in the world of PR, is very proud of that. "I make no apologies for the size of the organization or its resources," he says. "We are formidable." But more than just the power, what permeates the halls at AARP is a strong sense of duty, a feeling of stewardship for the millions of Americans over 50 who rely on the 45-year-old organization not just for legislative protection, but for a steady stream of information about their own lives and family issues. Mention the power AARP wields, and Novelli gets reflective. "When your voice is heard like ours is," he says, "you have to be very careful - not just on strategy, but to make sure you're speaking responsibly." So it's understandable why Novelli, who founded and led Porter Novelli until he departed in 1990 to pursue a career in public service, changed things at AARP once he became CEO, ensuring that the PR buck would always stop with him. "Bill initially came in as associate executive director of public affairs. But when he moved into the executive director and CEO position, he did a top-level restructuring, and now communications reports directly to the CEO," explains director of communications Lisa Davis. He also broke down walls between communications and other offices. "We didn't have enough integration between communications and advocacy," he remembers. "That was something we worked hard to improve." Other than that, Novelli found very little else that required changing. "Communications has always been pretty strong here," he offers. And the department's work seems to back him up. The PR team's makeup There are 75 PR employees in Washington, plus one in each of the 50 state offices. The department is divided into five units: internal communications, public outreach, editorial management, media relations, and broadcast (which alone probably boasts more production power than an average local TV studio). Spread out over nearly an entire floor in AARP headquarters are two TV studios, a radio booth, and a number of state-of-the-art production and graphics workshops. On the roof is a satellite uplink, so the unit's 21 cross-trained employees ("everyone needs to be able to do everything") can theoretically create and broadcast a TV spot without ever leaving the building. But otherwise, it's hard to say where one unit ends and the other begins. Novelli and Davis seem to have taken great care to create a seamless department, and it shows - even in some unusual ways. For instance, on a given Monday, there is at least one table in the cafeteria populated solely by communications staff, and every unit is represented. Their work also shows a remarkable integration of efforts. For example, every state office produces and circulates a monthly newsletter. But while most of the writing is done at the state level, the editing and production is all performed through the national office - which produces several of its own newsletters, including a daily electronic update. Those internal documents are filled with stories from advocacy, speechwriting, public outreach, advertising, and income development. "We use PR and communications as a way to advance the goals of the organization, so we have to be a partner in all the high-level teams," says Davis. Listing the objectives of AARP would require more space than a single-page feature allows, but the majority of its time these days is taken up by the addition of a prescription-drug benefit to Medicare. The issue's been at the top of the AARP priority list for years, but is finally being acted upon in Congress. As of this writing, two versions of a bill sit in a House/Senate conference committee awaiting the fall session. AARP is withholding final judgment until a bill is produced, but that doesn't mean the organization isn't using its influence to move the debate in the right direction. A massive behind-the-scenes lobbying push is complemented by op-eds, public letters to Congress from Novelli, and an aggressive media relations blitz (see USA Today's July 17 cover story, "AARP balks at drug plan"). Larry Lipman, Palm Beach correspondent for Cox Newspapers, has been dealing with AARP for nearly 20 years, and speaks firsthand about its efforts to influence debates on aging issues. "They're pretty aggressive," he says. "Not overly, but when they want to say something, they're good about doing it. They have frequent briefings previewing the State of the Union, for example, or previewing upcoming sessions of Congress." They also have a regular briefing before the Supreme Court embarks on a new session, something Lipman finds particularly helpful. Growing political pull As for AARP's political muscle, Lipman sees it only getting stronger as the years go by - something he credits to improved communications. "I think their influence has really sharpened over the past couple years," he observes. "The charge against them a few years ago was that they were too general. They didn't have a strong-enough or specific-enough message for what they wanted to do. I think they've put a finer point on what they want to accomplish, and it's been more effective." That fine point extends to elections as well, and 2004's Presidential race will be no exception. "We're a nonprofit organization, so we don't endorse or give money to any candidates, but we do put candidates' opinions in front of our members so they can decide," says Davis. AARP does that by sponsoring debates and through its voter guides, which go to all members and list the candidates' stances on senior issues. Those are some big guns; the NRA should watch its back. ----- PR contacts Director of communications Lisa Davis Director of internal communications Don Fitts Director of broadcast Mark Slimp Director of media relations Marty Davis Manager of public outreach Barbara Woolley Director of editorial management Terry Edmonds Senior advisor Janet Lane Special assistant to the executive director Boe Workman

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