Election cycle poses challenge for public affairs

The business of public affairs is closely tied to the election cycle, and this year's midterm races are shaping client work in the public and private sectors.

The business of public affairs is closely tied to the election cycle, and this year's midterm races are shaping client work in the public and private sectors.

Congress' Republican majority is busily trying to push through legislation, and that means more work on the federal level, says Robert Sommer, MWW Group's EVP and director of public affairs. "The Washington agenda has increased significantly," he says.

Launching an effective campaign becomes tougher as Election Day nears because policymakers become reluctant to touch controversial issues. At the same time, both Republicans and Democrats realize that the balance of power in DC may shift, and they are preparing their campaign strategies.

"In many ways, for clients and agencies, it's going to be a more difficult year," says Jerry Johnson, EVP and GM at Brodeur. "The good news is that, with an uncertain future, clients look to consultants to navigate choppy waters."

In the private sector, the tech and telecoms industries are also boosting public affairs capabilities as they struggle with issues from intellectual property to free speech.

"We're heading into a prolonged revamping of our telecoms system," Johnson says.

Rising oil prices and environmental issues are also driving public affairs needs in the energy sector.

"US companies are multinational today," says Gloria Dittus, founder and CEO of Dittus Communications, who recently sold her firm to Financial Dynamics in order to have a more global reach. Prime regions of activity are China, India, and Belgium, she notes.

She points to healthcare as a sector that is increasing its public affairs budget to navigate the different regulatory and delivery systems in each country.

Virtually all industries within the private sector are doing more public affairs work, practitioners note.

"There's no reason to think that public affairs will do anything but continue to grow," says Al Jackson, SVP and director of Ketchum public affairs. "What is generally getting recognized [is that] if they want to be effective, it's important to have public affairs capabilities."

But where agencies once focused solely on direct communications with the media and policymakers, they are now building campaigns with a more educational tone and working with more grassroots coalitions to carry their message. "It's more powerful to have third-party partners," says Gene Reineke, COO of Hill & Knowlton.

Digital communication and new media have also changed the way groups organize their supporters and raise funds, adds Johnson.

Within agencies, the Jack Abramoff scandal has placed public affairs pros under greater scrutiny. There are new rules for communicators to comply with, and firms are implementing training processes to get staffers up to speed.

"There's a lot more transparency, and that will only continue," says Sommer. "And there's a lot more rigor in terms of complying with disclosure laws."

Jackson, however, sees a boost to public affairs. As lobbyists now struggle to secure access to policymakers, public affairs pros are working to show why a certain issue merits their attention.

Key points:

Midterm and state gubernatorial elections mean less issues-advocacy work and more campaign-focused efforts

More companies are seeking global expertise

Firms are boosting ethics training and compliance

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