Public Affairs Roundtable: Center of activity

A new administration and proposed change in the nation's capital are resulting in greater public affairs outreach. Erica Iacono and Jaimy Lee were in DC for this Fleishman-Hillard sponsored event.

A new administration and proposed change in the nation's capital are resulting in greater public affairs outreach.  Erica Iacono and Jaimy Lee were in Washington, DC, for this Fleishman-Hillard sponsored event.

Erica Iacono (PRWeek): How has the public affairs environment changed with the new Administration? How do issues like increased transparency and stimulus funds fit into strategy?

Tom Amontree (US Telecom Association): President Barack Obama touted himself as an expert on digital communications and his presidency is just that. It's all about transparency and using all the social media tools, which is a good/bad for us in PR because it helps you get your message out by using all these different ways. But, it also causes you to make sure that everything you're saying is extremely accurate.

Mike Lake (Burson-Marsteller): The current Administration has done a good job elevating the awareness [of social media] for people. I do think that they brought that awareness to the private sector because a lot of our clients now are saying, “I want a campaign like Obama ran. I want to be able to reach people like that and have the kind of success he did.” That's been good for us in the industry for really using these tools. Now, our challenge is: how do we use those tools in a way that benefits the clients? How do you get your hands around Twitter for your clients?

Peter Ashkenaz (CMS): As long you hit the right tool for the right audience. We're all pretty technologically based and we use these tools, but a 75-year-old Medicaid beneficiary isn't going to rush to a Facebook page. They're not looking at Twitter to get information. They are probably calling their kids and grandkids. I'm afraid we're forgetting a lot of the shoe leather work that we need to do. The campaign was using the technology to get the shoe leather on the ground and thinking about: how do we use those technologies?

Sandy Scott (Corporation for National and Community Service): As an agency whose mission is to get people to volunteer, it's been incredibly helpful the savvy that the Obama Administration has brought to the White House. Especially for AmeriCorps, which is 18 to 24 year olds and college students, it's essential to be using those outreach tools but, even more broadly, we've already seen evidence of it working. There are all these challenges. There are new rules with information collection and privacy. But, we've already seen in our small agency the evidence that those new social media techniques are helping us achieve our mission of more volunteers.

Alex Slater (Glover Park Group): You mentioned the stimulus. It's really a maximum point of peril and maximum point of opportunity for the Administration here. They have promised such a high level of transparency around stimulus spending that they've raised the bar almost impossibly high. There's a massive political advantage to their opponents in what will inevitably be cases of misuse, fraud, misdirection of funds. It's really a shared responsibility for both those of us who are advising clients who are involved with stimulus funds to really try and be as transparent as possible. It's one of the sleeping gods in Washington right now. The money's only beginning to be spent. That's one of the big stories that's yet to break and will really, once it does break, will break in a big way, in a sustained way, throughout the rest of this year and probably the rest of this political cycle.

Maury Lane (FedEx): I don't live in Washington so I see no transparency in the stimulus bill. We don't see much on the spending or what people are doing with it. All we see is more and more people not liking bailouts. We're seeing more and more people not liking government intervention in business. We're seeing more and more people wanting to go back and have an economic recovery that has jobs in it. It's really about the economy for folks. A lot of the digital media that you have isn't big enough to make these issues come through. I think that's dangerous in itself and you have a smaller media than you've ever had before. The stuff that used to be really big news in Washington is no longer important.

Geoff Freeman (US Travel Association): There seem to be these two things that have defined the Obama Administration and it's a paradox. On one hand, it's all about the economy and it's all about creating jobs. On the other hand, it's about looking for villains within industry. When  you look at the new Washington and how it's been defined - whether it's the healthcare debate, the climate change debate, what happened on Wall Street - the first six months of this year have been defined by finding how industry and how business has harmed America at the same time when we're talking about strengthening the economy. The big challenge, especially for those of us in the association space and the corporate space, is how quickly do you get off of that radar screen, how quickly can you get away from being defined as part of the problem.

Slater (Glover Park Group): The financial services sector has been very late to the game, realizing that they have a fundamental disconnect in the way that they are talking to the Administration, to the opinion leads, to the echo chamber, but also the general public about what they fundamentally stand for. There's a real paradox from being pro-business and being able to communicate that one is pro-business and pro-consumer.

Terry Carr (Ginnie Mae): I wouldn't attribute the villain attitude so much to the Obama Administration. There is a balance where you can be pro-consumer and pro-business. I'm just not sure you can say the rest of the industry has paid much attention to it, particularly in the excesses that lead up to it. One of my biggest challenges at Ginnie Mae is teaching the executives to speak in plain language. There is so much jargon in the financial services industry. There's a tendency to think, “If I speak in the terms of my industry, I will be perceived as more capable.” It really hurts you when you're trying to talk to consumers.

Martha Boudreau (Fleishman-Hillard): [Language and messaging], is the core of the strategy. In the financial services industry, they're not going to get anywhere until they get that down pat. The wrong language leads to this continued perception of arrogance and a disconnect and it's not just about the fact that the SEC understands. If it cannot be explained in layman's terms, then the chances are the Hill is not following, as well. You can't talk here, without influencing this other stream.

Carr (Ginnie Mae): That's actually the biggest change I've experienced as a result of the Obama Administration, having to marry all of those audiences together much more effectively. I can no longer afford to just talk to investment banks and other lenders, [I've] got to talk to everybody.

Iacono (PRWeek): Does social media make that easier?

Carr (Ginnie Mae): It does make it easier. It's challenging since we're owned by the government to really effectively use the social media tools. Even tough it's highly encouraged, there are definitely some issues with actually implementing them.

Amontree (US Telecom Association): Especially with Twitter. It's labor intensive. When you start a Twitter dialogue on an issue, you can't just say, “I'm going to say one thing,” and then walk away. You got to spend all your time, responding and dealing with the feed until it's finished. The minute you go in and they don't think you're credible, it's really hard to get that back.

Iacono (PRWeek): But it seems ironic given the Administration's and the Obama campaign's use of social media in getting there. I would have thought it would have trickled through the agencies.

Ashkenaz (CMS): There was an article in Wired very early in the Administration that was an interview with the White House IT czar. He talked about all of the difficulties that he found when he came in – all of the regulations that we're bound by, the privacy, the fact that none of us have access at our desks to any of the social media programs, even though they want us to use them. So, they're working to try to make it more accessible but you look at the Medicare data that's out there and think about all of the privacy that falls under that. What are the requirements that are going to have to be made to allow that information to be available?

Slater (Glover Park Group): Much of the political social media organization has come through the new private-wing Organizing for America, which has obviously much fewer restrictions than the White House itself. The creation of this sort of third-party entity [has] been vital [and] something that's been unheard of. An organization that's been open to taking meetings, working with those who are willing to work with them on issues like healthcare, [introduces] this notion of unlikely bedfellows. You see these unlikely alliances forming and strengthening. And, before where they were the exception and where they were the news drivers, they're almost becoming the norm now.

Iacono (PRWeek): How has the relationship between trade associations and organizations changed? How are these unlikely alliances changing messaging and communications for both parties involved?

Lane (FedEx): I don't see that big of a change. I don't find that I've seen a huge difference in the way people have re-engaged. I haven't seen a great shift. This has been happening a long time.

Ashkenaz (CMS): Before the '92 election, I was at AARP and they helped facilitate an alliance for the '92 election with AFL-CIO and [American Medical Association] to call for healthcare reform. Everyone was blown away that AFL and AMA would even stand at the podium together. You've always had these sorts of alliances. I think what's changed is the technology. It's more than just the DC office that's doing it and being able to get the information out to the membership faster through the tools. You're seeing SEIU on the ground talking about PhRMA in a different way than they would have even 15 years ago. The technology's changing that.

Lake (Burson-Marsteller): The technology has really helped create a democratization of influence, where [it] used to just be the-inside-the-Beltway lobbyists that got things done. What this does is equalize it. For a lot of our clients on the private sector side, it's creative transparency but it's also created [a situation] where they have to be more aware of what their opponents are doing out there all the time now. You can't just ignore it now. You have to have a Twitter site whether you like it or not because that's a new channel. It's not the only channel. Most people still get their information from TV. You can't ignore that. You can't ignore the newspapers even though, as Maury cited, journalists have fallen by the wayside.

Lane (FedEx): I find local television [has] fallen faster than newspapers.

Wharton (National Association of Broadcasters): Most people, according to surveys, still get most of their news from local broadcasting but, you're right, there [have] been a lot of layoffs and a lot of cutbacks at broadcast properties. I think there's opportunity with this digital transition for both radio and TV to actually grow.

Slater (Glover Park Group): But, do you believe the local bureaus will actually staff up again?

Wharton (National Association of Broadcasters): They will staff up to a certain extent but not to where they were before. This whole citizen journalism trend is going to be embraced by broadcasters, too. We're going to encourage folks on the street to send in their video clips of breaking news stories. You're already seeing that but that's going to increase exponentially. One of our big battles has been trying to get some relaxation of some rules that would allow common ownership of broadcast and newspapers in one market. We have to do a better job of making the case on why that's good for preserving journalism jobs and for keeping the public informed.

Boudreau (Fleishman-Hillard): Going back to the issue on strange bedfellows, it has been going on for a long time but it's more granular now. Back in '94, it was: “We're all in opposition to this bill,” and now, it's much more: “We're going to partner on this component of it and we're in agreement on that. On this title, we're completely on the other side.” That doesn't kill the ability to still align organizations that are odd bedfellows on a certain component of it. The thing to me that seems to have changed is that there isn't driving desire to be in control of all elements of the debate, of the conversation, of the entire bill. That point of view has changed in a profound manner over the last decade. It's not that easy anymore. We don't control the conversation. We don't control the parameters of the debate.

Carr (Ginnie Mae): Is that true for your financial services clients? We have institutions looking to us for help all the time. Often, to sell it politically, it needs a consumer face. It needs a public face. But, that often isn't part of the alliance and I'm curious if that's what you see in that area.

Boudreau (Fleishman-Hillard): There's an educational process with that industry sector. They're having to adopt a more consumer-friendly face. They're having to understand it's not just about the relationship with the regulatory agencies. It's really much broader than that. They're getting there but the stakes are high right now and they need to get there fast.

Slater (Glover Park Group): I would say they're behind the curve, generally. [But] there are some tangible examples of how they are engaging consumer groups in the roll-out of new financial products, trying to get their buy-in, their feedback, and genuinely changing the nature of financial products that they are offering.

Lane (FedEx): You go back to talking about these bedfellows and how there's this separation. I think the legislation process has changed that. The process of bipartisanship during that process has eroded a lot and a little bit of these extraneous issues and matters that get thought up in the bigger bill has now become crucial. [The bills] are just so giant. But, the individual citizen can be heard, not through Twitter, they can be heard because the President owns the whole agenda. I don't know that many great Twitter campaigns that have been successful in stopping something or changing or people having the ability to petition the government.

Freeman (US Travel Association): We all may wish things have changed and we all may want things to change but I don't think things have changed that much. You might be right with how companies are targeting consumers. You mentioned you've got to be for something. No, you don't. Folks on the right aren't for anything in healthcare and they're winning this thing right now. It's dangerous to look at what happened in the Obama presidential campaign and this healthcare debate and look at that for the lessons what we're going to do on the 98% of other issues in Washington that are much smaller issues. Those things are movements. That was a political movement and when you look at what's happening in healthcare, for many people, it has less to do with healthcare and more to do with a political movement. Ninety-eight percent of what's going on in this town is about politics [and] issues. There are a lot of associations who are tweeting and Facebooking and whatever the next thing is. They're wasting a hell of a lot of money because I don't know anyone who really knows what they're doing with it, who's using in such a way that it's moving a member of Congress. I haven't run across anyone, and this is more association politics, who's using it in such a way that their members are saying, “Yes.” Members to this day want that New York Times article. They want that “Today” show appearance. They want that traditional stuff and that's what members of Congress go to the floor and put on the podium as they make their statements – it's the editorials that have run, it's the articles that have run. We run the risk trying to be too cute by half and doing all the new things and you're leaving the old, traditional things that still work.

Slater (Glover Park Group):  You're absolutely right. It would be a mistake to throw away all the traditional, what we used to call mainstream media tactics to replace them with new media. We did an analysis of the number of members of Congress and senators who are actually on Twitter themselves, meaning it's not just their staff. If you decide to follow them, you can actually get directly to them. If you're Twittering, they will see it. It's lobbying by another way. It's a way of reaching them directly. Am I saying that revolutionizes everything in the mainstream media? Absolutely not. I'm just saying that there are targeted opportunities. Should we spend all our time on that? Absolutely not, but there are definitely very clear and valuable opportunities out there.

Amontree (US Telecom Association): There's a balance. If you look the majority of people under 30, they don't watch TV. They watch it on the Internet. To get to the younger generations, which a lot of the Hill [staffers] are very young, you really do have to engage them in the social media arena. Now, the members – a lot of them are on Twitter but a lot aren't – still go with the newspapers and the TV. You have to do both. You can't just do one or the other.

Lake (Burson-Marsteller): At the end of the day, the toolbox has just gotten bigger. We haven't grown out of broadcast or print. We've just added more tools. I don't think any one is any better than the other. They all have to complement each other and that's what we do in all of our businesses. How do integrate those tools, depending where your audience is? Because now you can reach them differently and still have those tools. As practitioners, our challenge on behalf of our clients is: how do you make sure you can protect your reputation more than anything out there? There's nobody in this room, I would doubt, that thought Countrywide a year and a half ago was a bad company. They were hailed as the greatest guys and equalizers for people to achieve the American dream. Now, they're gone.

Boudreau (Fleishman-Hillard): Even for clients that only want to do traditional media approach, it can't just be the traditional way of approaching reporters because they get their story ideas from blogs. They get their story ideas online. And, they get their story ideas through search engine results. So, it is impossible to be a communications or public affairs practitioner and not have a strategy for embedding information online in the places where your audiences are going to.

Wharton (National Association of Broadcasters): I know [Obama] is embracing new media but I would also like to point out that this is a guy who has done more primetime news conferences on broadcast television than any president in history. That speaks to me to the power of the brand of television.

Lane (FedEx): I have a question. What's the best day to be in The Washington Post? It's not Sunday. It used to be Sunday but it's Wednesday now. They get more electronic hits now from the print and then the bounce of the story if it's posted at midnight. They're getting almost a million hits off the bounce of the story. If you get more hits off the Web, you get more hits off RSS feeds than you ever will on a Sunday. People don't buy Sunday. They don't look at the Internet on Sunday. The rules are changing. It's just our adaptation. Is that social media? Smart use of RSS feeds and access to stories?

Ashkenaz (CMS): It comes back to strategy. Ultimately, what do you want to accomplish? If I'm going to get a Robert Pear story in the Times, I have a much better chance of showing up on the nightly broadcast because, no matter what, the three networks and even CNN tend to look at the Times. So, what's the strategy that you're hoping to accomplish? I'm just afraid that strategy has left the room. What do we get to play with? Let's just go put a message out. But, what's the strategy?

Iacono (PRWeek): How have changes in the lobbying rules and regulations affected other components of public affairs and your work?

Wharton (National Association of Broadcasters): It affects reporters when they say the rules are being changed on ethics. I think to the extent that they are a little leery of accepting free lunches, going to a ballgame with a PR person. Some it doesn't, some it does. It affects reporters' mindset that they have to be more pure, as least in appearance. 

Freeman (US Travel Association): When you think of a lobbyist, you're not thinking of the Sierra Club lobbyist. You're not thinking of the many so-called noble groups that are out there that are also lobbyists. You think of big business and the lobbying rules – these changes and the grand publicity about not hiring any of these evil people and the transparency – it furthers the demonization. It positions business, again, to come at this with a handicap and you've got to get off that radar screen as quickly as you can.

Amontree (US Telecom Association): I do believe it's harder if you're relying on your contacts or social situations. It's gone a lot more from social to education. A lot of it has to be done in Washington because a lot of the Capital Hill staff don't want to travel or can't travel. So, [there are] a lot more Washington events, a lot more educational events that they can come to and have a Coke and a cookie. Using groups, not corporate groups, but more alliances with a name that isn't related directly to one corporation, [helps]. If you're part of a coalition, having that do an educational seminar for members of the Hill. It makes our job harder because you have to be more informed and you have to know your stuff.

Lane (FedEx): I don't think you have to win in Washington. I think you actually go to the states. I think you can actually have a bigger impact at home than you do here. If you get on a plane and go to Bismarck [ND], you can have a real conversation about what's going on.

Wharton (National Association of Broadcasters): One of the benefits of broadcast is we have people in virtually every district in America. They know we are the conduit between them and their constituents. That's a built-in advantage that you have when you are a trade association with members in every district.

Iacono (PRWeek): Are we seeing more local, state, and regional public affairs work?

Lake (Burson-Marsteller): You have to have a state strategy working hand-in-hand with the Washington strategy. Washington has pushed a lot more to the states. You see it not only with the federal programs that are implemented at the state level, whether it's changes in the WIC program that have to take place at the state level or whether you're going to go out and talk about child vaccinations. It's federal money, but it takes place at the state level. DC is always DC but where we're seeing the real growth is out in the field. You get a bellwether state like a California or Texas that are big states that have a lot of members of Congress and a lot of activity takes place out there now. What hasn't changed is the toolkit. You still have to have lobbyists; you still have to play in Washington, DC. Now, you see corporations and the government a lot more active at the state level.

Freeman (US Travel Association): The answer to your question, from my point of view, would be yes. But, the thing to keep in mind, though, is that we're all operating with fewer resources today than we were a year ago. We all know we have to be there. The question is: can you be there? We've seen three big changes in the past year: one, going back to the local issue, the Rocky Mountain News, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, they're no longer with us. There is some level of desperation that you see, even with local press. From our perspective, we're seeing people be more sensational than they've been in the past. There's a need to do that, whether it's to keep their own job or to sell newspapers, whether it's to be on the nightly news. Two, you've got members right now who are a bit desperate. All the problems we had that defined the first half of this year on Wall Street, in the economy. Just about every one of these members [was] on the same committees or played some role in enabling the environment to get what it became. You saw people flailing in desperation to say they were on the side of the consumer and distancing themselves from most of us. [Third], it's not slowing down. This Administration's willingness to try to tackle 17 issues at the same time has stressed all of us.

Iacono (PRWeek): I wanted to build on the point that Geoff made about local news being more sensational now. How are you handling that from a messaging or strategy standpoint?

Scott (Corporation for National Community Service): One thing that is a counter-perception of news-- if it bleeds, it leads-- is in our world. We're dealing with incredibly positive stories of people making a difference through volunteer and charitable works. Sometimes, people think there's no room for that in the news but, actually, we found that there is. It's good for us because it gives us a place to go to with our stories but it also reflects that consumers want to hear something more than murder, scandal, crime, disaster. That's something that's encouraging but it also gets to the conversation about local. One of our strategies is to spend a lot of time trying to empower and give tools to our field. More and more that's important because they [are] 7,000 of them and two of us and so thinking about messages, tool kits, opportunities to piggyback on a national story. In some ways, PR has never been more important because the tool box is large, you need people to operate the tool box, there are more ways you need to get the word out, you need to monitor what's being said about yourself, the increased democratization of social media means you have a lot more [news] coming in. The demand for what PR people do is growing at the same time that the budget is shrinking.

Ashkenaz (CMS): You have personalized stories that you can pitch to a local reporter. I find that the difficulty is the pool of educated reporters is shrinking. It's hard to convince that there's a consumer need or what the consumer piece is. I'm looking for alternatives [as] to where the educated reporters work. Following Kaiser Health News is a great resource because they're hitting all the local newspapers. ProPublica is doing investigative work but I don't know if anybody has looked at them in a tactical tool kit. Are there investigative stories that's anyone is reaching out to the reporters that you used to work with at the big papers? What's happening at the local level is not as many educated reporters.

Lane (FedEx): Could we change the word ‘educated' to ‘experienced'? It's an experience issue truly when you go out to certain TV markets and you find someone that's been out [working] for three years, versus the news director's 25 years.

Wharton (National Association of Broadcasters): In the smallest markets, you're going to have less experienced people. The more experience people, typically, are the anchors in smaller markets. The business model is challenged.

Amontree (US Telecom Association): Some reporters are very sensationalistic, always were and always will be. The news directors ask for that. But, what is happening now with social media is that more reporters and news outlets that look at an advocacy person on Twitter or a consumer who is blogging as, “Well, they're not a real journalist.” But, people are listening to them. There has to be an embracing of a new model.

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