These days, adaptability is key in Washington

With the Obama administration and a new activist Congress that has solid Democratic majorities, there exists a confluence of factors that will likely change the way we in public affairs and communications conduct advocacy efforts for clients.

With the Obama administration and a new activist Congress that has solid Democratic majorities, there exists a confluence of factors that will likely change the way we in public affairs and communications conduct advocacy efforts for clients. Why? Consider these:

Big reform fights. Some of the biggest, most sweeping legislative battles ever will be waged over these next two years. We've just witnessed the most massive economic stimulus and bailout packages ever devised. That's just the beginning.

Most of these fights will center around reform – healthcare, financial services, tax, and education, as well as new initiatives focused on energy and environmental issues, infrastructure development, just to name a few. Each one will be a food fight and battle lines are already being drawn.

Smaller client budgets. The historic economic downturn has taken its toll in Washington. Trade associations, corporate public affairs offices, and advocacy groups are not only seeing membership declines, but also depleted war chests to advocate for (or against) this massive wave of legislation that will affect the industries they represent.

The food chain. This, in turn, has affected the Washington public affairs “food chain” of vendors: lobbyists, public affairs and polling firms, and agencies specializing in advocacy advertising – all of whom experienced decreased revenue numbers in both Q4 2008 and Q1 2009.

We in the agency business must adapt to this environment by devising new, more cost-efficient strategies to help clients win in Washington and in state capitals nationwide. Some of the trends we'll likely see are:

Unparalleled growth in coalition formations. Corporations and their associations can't go it alone. They'll have to consolidate their activities and outreach collectively. Forming ad-hoc coalitions can be a cost-effective way to execute advocacy efforts and pool resources.

Greater use of grassroots for mobilization and advocacy. Grassroots campaigns are extremely targetable and cost-effective, and can be scaled up or down on a moment's notice. Elected officials like to hear from their hometown constituents. This is one of the most effective weapons in the arsenal.

A further shift from traditional paid-media strategies to social-media advocacy. Political Washington has embraced social media with unprecedented fervor. Bottom line, it's still about getting the most bang for the buck. Print ad placements are limited by space and cost constraints, compared to online counterparts.

The next two to four years will be among the most interesting and frenetic periods ever in public affairs. That's a good thing, especially in this economy.

Robert Tappan, a former senior official at the US State Department, is president of public affairs firm Weber Merritt. His column will look at issues advocacy and related public affairs topics. He can be reached at rtappan@webermerritt.com.

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