Keeping control as outreach options increase

Ten years ago, reaching out to influential people on public affairs or legislative issues mostly entailed running newspaper or radio ads and working with journalists on print and TV stories.

Ten years ago, reaching out to influential people on public affairs or legislative issues mostly entailed running newspaper or radio ads and working with journalists on print and TV stories.

Direct contact with lawmakers is still valuable, but the rise of electronic information sources has changed the secondary means of reaching decision-makers.

Torod Neptune, SVP and director of US public affairs at Waggener Edstrom, says Web sites, blogs, podcasts, and other electronic communications avenues are creating a shift from mass-market to targeted media that provides an opportunity for the PR industry to influence various audiences for less money.

"Instead of spending $10,000 on traditional ads, we can spend the same amount or even less and be much more effective," he says. "It's a changing influence model."

But the volume of information that agency pros can collect and easily display to a targeted audience creates management problems for, among other things, the all-important Web site. Managing Web sites can be an increasingly large headache for the firm handling an account when information is posted at the whim of an in-house IT department.

Rather than wait for IT to finish network updates or set up a new staffer's computer, though, companies like Vienna, VA-based Janson PR and Lanham, MD-based Vocus offer tools for agency pros to update the sites themselves.

"There are so many breaking events - whether it's IR, legislative affairs, or PR - that real-time access to message management is now key," says Janson CEO and President Janet Chihocky.

These Web site management services are just one of the technological tools that can help public affairs groups and lobbyists do their jobs more effectively. Groups and firms working on political and legislative campaigns have for some time also employed data-mining software to know precisely what audiences to address, and where.

"They're literally drilling down to the precinct level based on demographics, voting trends, all that sort of stuff," says Tyler Beardsley, public affairs director at Janson. "It's been encompassed into political campaigns to where they can tailor direct mailings based on this data mining."

But the use of electronic communications and software tools can backfire. Grassroots organizations that call for members to participate in mass e-mail campaigns targeting particular members of Congress sometimes flood lawmakers' offices with excessive amounts of e-mail, annoying Capitol Hill staff members and prompting the use of e-mail filters.

It pays to be selective in what e-mail is sent to lawmakers' offices, says Neil Dhillon, SVP at the MWW Group's DC office. For lobbyists, he says, e-mail is a great way to forward news stories, surveys, or other information to Hill staffers. But e-mail can never replace face-to-face contact.
 
"If I had a 20-page survey or data and a staffer told me to either e-mail or deliver it, without hesitation I'd take a taxi to drop it off," Dhillon says. "Then I can say hello and [maintain] that person-to-person communication."

Key points:

Electronic media can cost less than traditional advertising and reach a more targeted audience

Management software allows faster updates and more autonomy over Web sites dedicated to particular issues

Inundating people with e-mails can be counterproductive: Nothing replaces face-to-face contact

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