Public Affairs Roundtable: Capitol assessment

From this year's election to the evolving media landscape, all eyes are on the public affairs sector. Industry leaders shared their views with Frank Washkuch at this Fleishman-Hillard-hosted roundtable in Washington.

From this year's election to the evolving media landscape, all eyes are on the public affairs sector. Industry leaders shared their views with Frank Washkuch at this Fleishman-Hillard-hosted roundtable in Washington. 


Participants
Matt Bennett, SVP of comms and public affairs, PhRMA
Bill Black, senior partner and co-chair, global public affairs practice, Fleishman-Hillard
Richard Ferraro, VP of comms, GLAAD
David Fuscus, CEO and president, Xenophon Strategies
Sue Hensley
, SVP of public affairs comms, National Restaurant Association
Anne Kolton, VP of comms, American Chemistry Council
Blain Rethmeier, SVP, public affairs and government relations, US Travel Association
Marc Ross, comms director, the US-China Business Council
Deidre Swesnik, director of comms and public policy, National Fair Housing Alliance
Scott Talbott,SVP, government affairs, Financial Services Roundtable

The election impact

Frank Washkuch (PRWeek): It's a presidential election year. How does that affect your public affairs campaigns? Moreover, how is it different from a regular year?

Blain Rethmeier (US Travel Association): It's the old adage: “If you can't beat them, join them.” There's a tremendous opportunity in an election year to play off the political cycle, to run your public affairs advocacy campaign similar to an election, and take that election mentality into your messaging and your membership.

Bill Black (Fleishman-Hillard): Usually in an election year, the rule is that not much legislation gets enacted. To the extent there always is gridlock, there's more gridlock in an election year. However, I've never seen the kind of gridlock we see today. You should use this year to build those quiet relationships because you know that, coming into next year, there will be some sort of a “mandate” one way or another.

Anne Kolton (American Chemistry Council): One of the key issues for us is ensuring a readily available and affordable supply of natural gas. This has played right into election-year politics, particularly in some of the traditional swing states, such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia, where natural gas is now the number one issue. We're looking at ways to create that nexus between what we want and what's being discussed in the presidential election anyway, to make sure our point of view is well acknowledged.

Sue Hensley (National Restaurant Association): Our members with restaurants all over the US have some of those same top issues for the presidential campaigns – tax reform, tax cuts, healthcare. These issues impact restaurateurs' bottom line, which is typically 3% to 4%.

David Fuscus (Xenophon Strategies): We've been seeking to tap into issues that are being brought up by the presidential campaign Ð unemployment, the economy. We're going in that direction to try to get the attention on the national level, but we're going much more local now, trying to go out with local issues that will impact individual members in targeted districts.

Matt Bennett (PhRMA): There are some Medicare policies that have to be dealt with, such as the physician payment fix that comes up every year. The election winner's mandate is going to be really important for 2013 and going forward. How that mandate is interpreted for the policy decisions that happen in November and December will have huge implications. It will create another layer of complexity in how we communicate.

From our perspective at PhRMA, it means we have to do an even better job telling our stories this year.

Marc Ross (US-China Business Council): We are very interested in the election because it seems both candidates want to make China a focal point as it relates to jobs. In addition, so much of our work is to speak to the highest levels of government in both Beijing and DC to create a commercial market for US companies to be successful. A lot of American companies are doing very well in China. There are challenges, but in some ways we see this as a real opportunity to be a part of the debate and tell our story. So attention can always be good.

Deidre Swesnik (National Fair Housing Alliance): The housing crisis is a huge issue. The economy affects communities, as well as individual people all the way up to policymakers. There are just so many different audiences, so we're trying to find different ways to talk about it.

Scott Talbott (Financial Services Roundtable): Our industry is going to be the subject of much conversation or much malign during the presidential election. We're trying to position ourselves to talk about the good things the industry is working on with housing, small business lending, what we do for the military.

Obviously, recent events with JPMorgan Chase added a layer of complexity to that message. Our challenge is to downplay the negative and respond with a positive. We can play offense and defense at the same time.

Richard Ferraro (GLAAD): After President Obama came out or gay marriage, we pretty much became ground zero for all of the national media coverage. There were obviously a lot of negative attacks on the gay and lesbian community, but now we have a huge opportunity as a result of Obama's announcement of breaking into media where we haven't traditionally been.

As more and more people get to know gay people in the workplace or at school, they're supporting our issues and they're supporting the right to treat all couples equally. The Republican Party is learning that a lot of its base is now shifting in that way. So perhaps they don't support marriage, but they don't support the idea that gay couples should be treated differently.

Economic message

Washkuch (PRWeek): How does the economy, a key campaign issue, affect your own messaging and activity?

Talbott (Financial Services Roundtable): We're the oil, if you will, for the economy, so we focus on talking about the positives: the trillions of dollars we finance, the projects we finance, the jobs we create. Every business needs financial institutions at one point or another.

Rethmeier (US Travel): Travel is a $1.9 trillion industry that supports 14.4 million jobs. It is America's number one export. Think about the amount of potential visitors we can get to this country and what it means for jobs. And these are American jobs that can't be outsourced. It's not the fun, frivolous industry many people associate with travel. It really is that engine that drives a lot of the American economy.

Hensley (National Restaurant Association): The restaurant industry is actually the second-largest private sector employer in the US. Talking about job creation and the economic environment, a policy is necessary to continue that growth.

Bennett (PhRMA): We've done a big push around our relationships with vendors and suppliers. We looked at three different states – Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Texas – and found we had some kind of economic relationship in not only every congressional district, but every state legislative district, except for one in Texas and we're trying to find somebody there.

Black (Fleishman): I've become focused on China. I have a number of Chinese company clients. The economic situation creates enormous message discipline because messages one, two, and three are “jobs, jobs, jobs.” Of course, you also have the counter pressure that there is a fair amount of hostility being discussed in terms of China as a job extractor from the economy. It creates an interesting message dilemma.

Swesnik (National Fair Housing Alliance): We're a civil rights organization and a housing organization. The economy definitely forced us to start talking about things in an economic way. There's the moral imperative for fair housing, which will drive what we do all the time, but that only gets you so far with some people. So talking about why discrimination, for example, in the market creates inefficiencies is also helpful.

Ross (US-China Business Council): Being able to explain globalization, supply chains, logistics, the way businesses source material is becoming more important. Being able to take very fancy Wall Street MBA words and make them simple for various people to understand is becoming a bigger part of my job on a daily basis.

Digital demands

Washkuch (PRWeek): Facebook has grown so many times over since the last election. Twitter is much bigger than it was. How is that affecting your messaging?

Rethmeier (US Travel): Our social channels are paramount to our communications strategy. It's evolved from even two or three years ago. We've taken our Twitter following literally from 3,000 in January to more than 30,000 today at a very low cost per conversion. The same is true for driving traffic to our website through search words. That's a much more efficient use of resources than the traditional means of paid advertising.

Fuscus (Xenophon): One of the grand things happening in this industry today is that you can measure so much of what's going on out there. And the important thing is that the whole concept of new and old media is gone. It's just media.

Kolton (American Chemistry Council): Social media is still very much a challenge for our industry. We try and utilize it as an offensive tool, but more often than not it is used against us.

Our challenge is figuring out how to intervene in a way that can be influential and seems authentic. There's a whole cottage industry that thrives online – and really nowhere else –that perpetuates misperceptions about what we do and how we do it.

Bennett (PhRMA): One of the other interesting challenges we have – not necessarily PhRMA, but certainly our member companies – is we are still waiting for the FDA to come up with the social media guidance that we need given the very real and important regulations on communications between pharmaceutical companies, doctors, patients, as well as what has to be reported as an adverse event and what doesn't. That does not – and should not – prevent us from using it as an advocacy tool, which is certainly what we're doing at PhRMA.

Rethmeier (US Travel): It's essential that, as you engage, you go in with the mindset that this is all about sharing. As we approach these new social channels, we must think from that consumer mindset. “Do I want to share this with my friends? Do I want to share it with my parents? Is it easy and understandable?”

Fuscus (Xenophon): Twenty-two centuries ago, the famous Roman statesman Cicero said, “If you're going to be successful in politics or communicating with people, you have to take complicated issues and boil it down to a simple story.” That was 2,200 years ago and it is as true today as it was then. If you have a good narrative and a good story, that's what gets attention.

Hensley (National Restaurant Association): We use Twitter and Facebook with a number of targeted audiences, but last year we launched a new children's nutrition program called Kids LiveWell. We held our first Twitter party in February and we had a consultant help us with it, but just with a $2,500 investment the metrics showed we reached 6 million people. Just in that one hour, it trended worldwide. 

The ROI you are able to get from effectively using social media tools is amazing, in particular with a program for which business trade associations traditionally aren't doing direct outreach to consumers.

Ferraro (GLAAD): Another way we found success on social media is to involve third-party advocates and allies. A lot of GLAAD's work also has to do with holding media accountable when they cover LGBT issues in an incorrect or unfair way. There's no better way to get a response from the media outlets we work with than to get people to start tweeting and tagging them in the tweets.

Black (Fleishman): The evolution of online paid advertising is at its infancy. Compelling content, as opposed to pushing out messages, is where it's all headed.

Ross (US-China Business Council): We've found a lot of success with LinkedIn. We have plenty of people who write 1,500-word briefing papers that are complex, which is great for one audience. But how else can we chip this up and put it out in four or five different places? Explaining that to my boss is always a challenge, but looking at it from an advocating standpoint, we've found a lot of success.

Talking points

Prior to the Fleishman-Hillard-hosted roundtable, PRWeek sat with Josh Marshall, editor and publisher of Talking Points Memo. The 2008 George Polk Award winner shared his views with an audience of public affairs executives on topics ranging from news cycles to President Obama's support of gay marriage.

On whether the Washington press pool will just go away?
No, but it will get smaller. Papers don't have the budgets they used to.

On how media has changed since the 2008 election cycle
Facebook and Twitter existed, but mainstream media still dominated. No longer. We're in a frictionless news cycle, as in there is no news cycle.

Did it surprise you when the President came out in support of gay marriage?
I was surprised. A purely numerical clause made it seem like a bad decision. I think his team was looking at something beyond the numbers.

Bracing for federal spending cuts

Washkuch (PRWeek): Congress and the White House will probably try to cut federal spending after this election. How do you prepare for that?

Talbott (Financial Services Roundtable): You can't just look at spending cuts. You also must look at the revenue side. That's where the issue gets challenging.

We're taking a holistic approach and saying that if we have to raise rates, lose expenses, or both, most likely we'll lose some deductions or our tax-preference items as a part of what's good for the country. That may be something we have to support overall.

Black (Fleishman): The big question after the election will be: is there a shift that gives some opening to the various interested parties to think and act on a macro basis? Or will the election results be so muddled that everybody will just continue in their foxholes and shooting away? Both the Democrats and Republicans believe the election will somehow resolve the question and that the public will then declare itself one side or the other and that will give them a mandate to go forward. But as we all know, the likelihood of that clarity is pretty low, so we may then get into a muddle.

Rethmeier (US Travel): It will be interesting to see what the election outcomes are and whether or not people are sent back to Congress that have a more fiscally responsible approach to the way they budget their districts or the Congress itself.

Ross (US-China Business Council): There are two sides to the debt. There's the conventional wisdom that China owns all our debt, which is not accurate, but it doesn't matter because everybody believes that. So that plays into the hand that America is declining and China is rising.

The other interesting point is when we negotiate with the Chinese, when we suggest to them that we think our model – the DC, US, Western model – is the correct way to run an economy, they are quick to remind us that, “You have this massive debt and we own a lot of it. You're also not acting appropriately.”

Fuscus (Xenophon): It's going to be interesting to see when the very real impact of the debt finally sinks into the American public.

Ross (US-China Business Council): JPMorgan Chase recently announced it lost 2%, which was $2 billion, on their trade. Gov. Jerry Brown (D-CA) predicted a $9.2 billion shortfall, but in fact it was a $16 billion dollar shortfall. This issue is not getting nearly the attention it should.

Swesnik (National Fair Housing Alliance): We've been talking about how, demographically, our country is going to totally change by 2042. We'll be majority people of color. If we don't address those issues going on, we're not going to be able to compete globally.

The changing media landscape

Washkuch (PRWeek): How is the evolving media landscape impacting the way you get your messages out?

Talbott (Financial Services Roundtable): Reporters seem to be trying to position themselves to create a following. It's becoming more about the reporter's personality. That's entertaining and interesting, but it creates a downside risk that if reporters say something on their tweet or on a blog about an issue, that makes them less objective when they come to you to do a story.

Kolton (American Chemistry Council): I see a tremendous loss of objectivity in journalists. It's sort of the emergence of the journalists as activists and that being an acceptable and accepted role for them.

Five years ago, 10 years ago, the idea of really trying to be fair and objective was an embraced principle, but you now see more journalists trying to create their own following and be a celebrity journalist. They need to have an opinion in order to be interesting.

Hensley (National Restaurant Association): Being a former reporter myself, I was taught in journalism school that you have to source your stories. But now you really have to be prepared for even the respected national outlets to go forward with publishing a story with anonymous sources. The landscape has changed dramatically, even in the last couple years.

Rethmeier (US Travel): It's all about delivery channels. When you talk about social media and this changing landscape, you can't forget about the mobile device.

Bennett (PhRMA): We all understand the importance of these new channels. Still, at the end of the day, the powers that be in any of our organizations are probably going to respond more to a New York Times story because that still has a cachet as a brand.

We're sometimes in such a rush to embrace those new channels, we forget the Times still carries much weight. So I try and keep people balanced when I discuss internally what our strategy is going to be.

Black (Fleishman): We're challenged with this evolving landscape that none of us know where it's going. At Fleishman, we have something called the PESO Model – Paid, Earned, Shared, and Owned media. Whenever we deal with a client now, those all occupy equal status in terms of communicating your message.

Ferraro (GLAAD): We've brought bloggers in when we do advocacy campaigns. We've shifted in the past few years from pitching a blog on a story to partnering with them and working on a campaign with the blog and the blogger. In terms of statewide campaigns, it's helpful because a lot of times they have relationships with journalists across the US and their local communities.

Ross (US-China Business Council): Owned media is the key. We have a magazine, for example, so that gives us a platform to get out and participate, attend press conferences, and write on issues affecting the US-China commercial relationship. As communicators, we all must think of ourselves as media moguls. You need a mindset that, “I'm a part of this conversation. I actually know more about this topic than The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, any other media organization. I want to shape the debate.”

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