Power to the people

In order to reach members of Congress, the most effective approach is through their constituents.

In order to reach members of Congress, the most effective approach is through their constituents.

There is an undeniable stereotype of wining-and-dining lobbyists winning support for legislation through a campaign contribution and a handshake. But, public affairs pros protest, in reality, members of the US Congress and state legislatures around the country actually tend to throw support behind measures based on what their constituents - the voters - want.

The Financial Services Roundtable certainly was on to this when, with Waggener Edstrom Worldwide's aid, it developed a campaign before the signing into law of the Bankruptcy Reform Act in 2005. The campaign was designed to educate consumers, media, and opinion-makers about the new rules set by the law - including requirements for hiring credit counselors before filing bankruptcy, and to provide advice on avoiding debt problems in the first place.

The intent of developing http://www.mymoneymanagement.net/ and aggressively reaching out to the media was not to help win passage of the bankruptcy law (that already had been achieved), but to show that the financial services industry wants to help consumers manage their finances responsibly and is not, despite some media portrayals, exploitative, notes Jennifer Smith, Roundtable VP for public affairs. The Roundtable's membership consists of close to 90 major banks, credit card companies, and other financial services firms.

"One major difference we noticed... was that before, in any story about bankruptcy reform, there would be opponents of the new law on one side and then a deafening silence on the other side," Smith says. "Once we started with the Web site, we started getting included. Our press hits went up exponentially."

Laying the groundwork

Supporting as it does the new bankruptcy law and serving as a means of placing the viewpoint of the financial services industry into the public debate about bankruptcy, the campaign has the important side benefit of helping essentially uphold the new law should the new, Democratic-controlled Congress choose to re-examine or alter it, notes Smith and Torod Neptune, SVP at WE and US public affairs practice leader.

What might actually occur is unclear. New Senate Banking Committee chairman and presidential candidate Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT) and Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Investigations Subcommittee chair Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) have either held or plan to hold hearings on credit card company billing practices. However, new House Financial Services Committee chair Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) reportedly has placed credit card issues lower on his list of priorities. But it doesn't hurt to lay some groundwork, Neptune says.

"The real goal of this, regardless of the legislative environment, is still what it was in the beginning: to move the issue out of the policy realm and into consumer education," says Neptune, a former chief communications strategist for the US House of Representatives. "We all know consumer opinion is the most positive way to affect public policy, so this is taking that long-term view as to how you can move an issue along by generating consumer education."

As another example of how broad outreach to constituents or influential voter blocs can potentially affect legislation, Anne Woodbury, MD and SVP of Fleishman-Hillard's Health Solutions Navigator business, cites the efforts of a client called the National ePrescribing Safety Initiative (NEPSI), which recently began promoting free software that allows physicians to process prescriptions electronically.

Previous efforts to create tax incentives or federal mandates of some type to push the use of electronic prescriptions - which advocates argue are safer and more efficient than using handwritten prescriptions that can be more easily misinterpreted by pharmacists - failed, but with the new 110th Congress, Woodbury says NEPSI and fellow e-prescribing advocates think they have a much better chance. Making this e-prescribing software free addresses a major concern of physicians: that electronic processing would be too difficult or expensive to do.

"This is an initiative that is responding to something that hasn't happened yet from the government side, but people may go back to and say, 'We've broken down that barrier [of cost or difficulty], and now it's time to incentivize it through the government or actually mandate it,'" Woodbury says.

Sometimes, public affairs campaigns have no direct connection to legislation, yet can still contribute to the overall legislative agenda of the campaign's sponsor. For example, Dow Chemical is one of the many sponsors of a new campaign called Six Degree Challenge, which focuses on consumers and various energy-efficient practices, but Dow's CEO is also a member of the Energy Security Leadership Council, which has a number of specific recommendations it's lobbying Congress on related to measures that could mitigate national security risks posed by US dependence on foreign energy.

Dow Chemical's VP of federal and state government affairs, Peter Molinaro, notes that the broad mix of campaigns that always spring up in connection with one issue or another - in this case, energy supply - are simply part of a larger, public conversation about what to do about the issue, legislatively or otherwise, and obviously reflect a multitude of self-interests.

"Interest in energy doesn't necessarily break down by party lines. It's regional. It's personal with a lot of people," Molinaro says. "Corporations that are supporting these campaigns are not one-dimensional in the public policy options they support."

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