"Inside the Beltway" is a phrase that often brings to mind leisurely lunches, friendly favors, and other relationship-driven activities that may have something other than the public's best interests at heart.
Whether the image is fair or not, public affairs pros say that in the past several years, a shift has begun to take place both in their relationships with government representatives, and in the climate in which business is handled. More than ever, they say, there is a premium on transparency.
"Particularly in public affairs, what has become so important is that those relationships are done through honest and transparent communications," says Steve Behm, VP for public affairs at Edelman in Atlanta.
Behm says that above all, openness and honesty should translate across the board. If an agency executive is on the board of an association, for example, any potential conflict of interest that arises must be duly noted. This is nothing new, of course, aside from a more developed understanding of how the transparency question can permeate a PR pro's activities.
"Having relationships is always important," says Jamie Moeller, MD for public affairs at Ogilvy in DC. "And it's important to have relationships with officials at all levels. It helps you stay informed about what issues they have and what you're trying to accomplish."
But Moeller believes that the fundamental nature of those relationships has begun to change - and will continue to do so along with the local landscape. There are many reasons behind the climate shift within public affairs, he adds. First, there is greater access to information that once may have been hard to obtain. The recent swing in Congress has also brought a new group of players to town.
"Relationships are much more transparent now," Moeller notes. "They are very open in terms of why you're talking to someone and who you're working for."
Neil Dhillon, MD of public affairs at Ruder Finn in DC, says that while relationships can be helpful, they aren't the deciding hiring factor for the firm's clients. "The real value in what we do is knowing how to navigate the process and understanding how to work with the appropriate people," he says.
Dhillon, who has worked for Democrats in the past, says despite the newly installed Congress, previous relationships don't necessarily make his job any easier. "There are no best friends on Capitol Hill," he says. "It's not a question of being partisan, it's a question of being in the know."
Whether all of this signals a sea change in the way public affairs pros do business is difficult to say. For his part, Edelman's Behm says agency executives' relationships with government officials are not always how the public perceives them. And while he concurs that the climate change has been significant, Behm is still finding places where traditional relationships can genuinely help the public.
"One misconception out there is that there is a natural antagonistic relationship between a regulator and an industry, and that's not often the case," he notes. "In fact, there are great partnerships to be had where industries are working with regulators and with their consumers to help address issues."
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