PR pros' influence increases in Washington policy debate

Many lobbying groups reported flat or negative revenues in 2011, a far cry from the double-digit growth they experienced in the mid-2000s.

Many major lobbying groups reported flat or negative revenues in 2011, a far cry from the double-digit growth they experienced in the mid-2000s.

Reasons given range from the economy to congressional deadlock, but PR pros contend there is an increased utilization of public affairs services over lobbying to reach out to lawmakers.

It's not the economy
Jeff Mascott, managing partner of Adfero Group, is in this camp. He doubts the economy played a part in the decreased use of lobbying services because the market has been in a relative upswing. If funding was going to drop, he adds, it would have happened in 2008 or 2009, not now. In fact, he noticed his firm's revenue rose 29% between 2010 and 2011.

"We do a lot of public affairs," explains Mascott, "and that suggests an essential shift of resources from lobbying to non-traditional ways of doing advocacy."

The change coincides with the public's increased social media use. "It's no longer the case that you need a well-heeled lobbyist to get a message to policy- makers," he notes. "There are many more avenues to reach Congress than there used to be."

Bradford Fitch, CEO of research and consulting firm Congressional Management Foundation, agrees. In 2011, his firm released a study showing 90% of congressional staff interviewed agreed that responding to constituent communications is a high priority in their offices. Further, nearly two-thirds of staff think Facebook is an important way to understand constituents' views.

"They want to hear people's stories and to know the impact a piece of legislation will have," says Fitch. "Constituents are more influential than people realize."

Greater dependency on diversified outreach to get policymakers' attention doesn't mean lobbying firms are nearing extinction, asserts Jamie Moeller, MD of global public affairs at Ogilvy PR. Their relationships with congressional staffers are invaluable.

This rationale heavily swayed his firm's 2005 purchase of lobbying shop The Federalist Group, which it renamed Ogilvy Government Relations. Having this integrated approach helps better ensure the client's voice is heard in the ultimate outcome of a piece of legislation, adds Moeller.

With very few new laws on the floor this year due to the election, Ogilvy is developing strategies it can launch when 2013 starts. Now is the time to make plans to be one of the first to get issues heard by a possible new House and Senate.

"You want to be ready to push your agenda on January 20, 2013," stresses Moeller.

Lobbyists Live On

Gary LaPaille, president of lobbying firm mCapitol Management, notices people emphasizing other outreach efforts, but he doubts this will lead to his firm's or industry's doom.

Records show his firm's lobbying revenue fell from $3.5 million in 2010 to $3.1 million in 2011. "The days of grabbing a congressional official and saying, 'I need you to support or kill a bill' are over," says LaPaille.

Flooding a lawmaker's office with correspondence from constituents motivated by social media, however, won't get the job done by itself.

"At some point, you must sit down with someone in a business fashion and have an educated discussion," he says.

Hearing social media
The US Travel Association has shifted the way it speaks to policymakers. At the start of the year, it launched its Vote Travel initiative, which features a heavy dose of social media outreach.

"More policymakers are listening to these channels," says Blain Rethmeier, SVP for public affairs and government relations. "It's absolutely important to communicate in those ways."

Ahead of Vote Travel's launch, the association teamed with Twitter to increase followers and ensure the most people possible would see the messages coming from the organization. From January to February, total followers jumped from 4,100 to 16,000.

"You can't replace in-person meetings, but you can be in a lot more places than you would otherwise," says Rethmeier, who estimates the impact for every $100,000 his firm spends on digital efforts equals what he'd get for $1 million spent on a government relations consultant.

Dean Garfield, president and CEO of the Information Technology Industry Council, had similar sentiments about the cost effectiveness of diversifying Capitol Hill outreach.

"The bucket has stayed the same, people are just shifting portfolios," he notes. "In this broader economic environment, people are doing more with less."

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