Public Affairs Roundtable: The path to victory in 2016

Multi-billion dollar election campaigns, the evolution of data and social, race relations, and the Press Pool all came under the microscope at this FleishmanHillard-hosted roundtable discussion in Washington, DC.

Top row (l-r):
-Lou Hutchinson, VP and chief revenue officer, WGL and Washington Gas
-B.R. McConnon, chairman and CEO, DDC
Middle row (l-r)
-Dan Jaffe, group EVP, government relations, Association of National Advertisers
-Janaye Ingram, national executive director, National Action Network
-Drew Maloney, VP of government and external affairs, Hess Corp.
Bottom row (l-r)
-Kris Balderston, GM, Washington office, FleishmanHillard
-Tom Sheridan, president, Sheridan Group
-Shana Glickfield, partner, Beekeeper Group
-Kara Gerhardt Ross, VP, global strategic comms, UPS
-Nick Ragone, CCO, Ascension

White House pursuit
Gideon Fidelzeid (PRWeek):
What unique factors will emerge during the 2016 campaign?

Kris Balderston (FleishmanHillard): In every campaign something new happens that changes our business. One major change from previous campaigns is the money. The 1992 Clinton campaign raised $61 million, followed by George Bush at $58 million and Ross Perot at $57 million. Today we’re talking about $1.5 billion to $2 billion for each major party. There are independent funders now for each of the campaigns.

You’re going to see a very unpredictable situation where someone could have left the race early on before, but funds are such now that they can run until the convention.

On the policy side, the inequitable distribution of wealth in this country is a huge issue both parties are focused on now.

Lou Hutchinson (WGL and Washington Gas): Another issue that will surely come up is our current status as it relates to macro-economic recovery and the candidates’ plans to continue with the current recovery and growth.

One issue that might be neutralized in this election is big data. Both sides will clearly rely on it heavily, so I see other factors being differentiators.

Tom Sheridan (The Sheridan Group): Micro-targeting will be key to where this election goes. Gathering data on very specific groups of voters is something President Obama touched on in 2012. It will be very different and much more finite this election cycle.

Furthermore, the persuasiveness of TV ads is diminishing as people flock to social media to talk about candidates. It’s an opportunity to move small groups of voters in very profound ways. Moreover, big-money spending could actually be undone because big money goes to TV, radio, and newspapers and a large segment of the population, particularly Millennials, will not be paying as much attention to those things. Social media is the great equalizer for those who don’t have Koch Brothers budgets.

Janaye Ingram (National Action Network [NAN]): Sticking with Millennials, they want to see candidates who are "in touch." At one point, you would see politicians kissing babies to show they relate to every person. Today it’s things such as selfies. Candidates who are not afraid to do something such as that reveal themselves to be in touch on some level.

On the policy side, it will be telling to see how candidates address the issues of criminal justice reform and policing in the US, particularly in lower-income communities.

Kara Gerhardt Ross (UPS): We’ve already seen candidates expand their social media use to incorporate Instagram and Snapchat. New tools will continue to be in play as candidates try reaching new audiences. Of particular interest will be the convergence of super PACs and 24/7 social media that will certainly be a major factor that could wield even more influence than the campaigns themselves.

B.R. McConnon (DDC): Going back to the money, a major shift has occurred to where two-thirds of spending now comes from outside organizations. And it’s important to note these outside entities, such as the Kochs, are spending their money on new technologies. They’re not only running direct mail and TV spots.

Drew Maloney (Hess): This may be the first election where the campaigns don’t control the messages, the super PACs do. These groups will have more money than the actual campaigns. And it’s funny we arrived at this place because of campaign finance reform. A major issue will also be the rise of populism on both the left and the right and what that means for corporate America.

Nick Ragone (Ascension): This is a very rare instance where an incumbent isn’t running, but yet one party basically has an uncontested primary, unless you think Bernie Sanders will light it up. Is that good or bad for Hillary Clinton? Time will tell.

The demographics of this country have shifted dramatically, as well, and they work decidedly against Republicans at the presidential level. It’s really difficult for the GOP to win a majority if you look at where the numbers are.

America’s role in the world has also become a major issue again. President Obama has charted a new direction for the US and that will play a key role in the Clinton campaign. Republicans would be wise to make the campaign a referendum on that because it’s an issue where there is a lot of confusion. The president has struggled at times with articulating, defining, and executing America’s role in the world. To the extent that Clinton is responsible for some of that will make it an important dynamic in the race.

Dan Jaffe (Association of National Advertisers [ANA]): We will also have an extremely contested election at the Senate level because the Democrats will try to retake it by winning seats currently held by the GOP. The Supreme Court will have a huge impact on this campaign as it nears major decisions on Obamacare and the definition of marriage.

In addition, ICANN [the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers] announced earlier this year that more than 500 new generic top-level domain registries are now operational and offering domain name registrations. That is up from 22 in October 2013. There are also 4 million-plus secondary domain names. This opens up numerous possibilities for troubling domain names against any candidate. And it just keeps proliferating.

Shana Glickfield (Beekeeper Group): Storytelling remains at the core of any campaign. The added challenge now is ensuring you have a narrative that will sustain for two-plus years in a very uncontrolled environment. It will become more important than ever to motivate at the grassroots level to get people to vote. At the end of the day, you must get people to the polls – and efforts to do so start a couple of years before Election Day.

Election forecast

Prior to the FleishmanHillard-hosted roundtable, Julie Mason, host of Press Pool on SiriusXM's POTUS Channel, moderated a discussion with a trio of top Washington media correspondents: Brianna Keilar, senior political correspondent at CNN; Christina Bellantoni, editor-in-chief at Roll Call; and Colleen McCain Nelson, White House correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. Below are some key takeaways from that panel on various confirmed White House aspirants:

•Hillary Clinton

Bellantoni: You automatically think everyone would view her as a throwback. However, when voters were asked to identify the candidate of the future, many picked her because the idea of having a female president is very future looking in the US. You can’t underestimate the concentration of enthusiasm over something historical such as that.

Keilar: She hasn’t taken a lot of questions – and that’s become a huge story. Covering her has been like watching the inside of a snow globe. We ask her questions and they really don’t get answered.

•Marco Rubio

Nelson: People in Obama’s orbit, as well as many pundits, see similarities to Rubio’s story and Obama’s 2008 political narrative. It’s the same "people told me to wait my turn, but I reject that" theme. Some Democrats see Rubio as a threat.

Bellantoni: Compared to Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, Rubio is certainly taken more seriously on foreign policy. He has gone to battle with both the White House and other Republicans on these issues. He has accomplishments. Compared to the governors, he can point out his experience.

•Bernie Sanders

Keilar: I don’t know if there is a pathway for him to win, but there is certainly a pathway for him to exert so much influence. Clinton’s camp certainly has its eyes on Sanders. They’re not dismissing him.

Nelson: He believes what he’s saying. He just seems to be in it for the cause and to make the case for his issues. If he doesn’t win, perhaps he can pull Clinton to the left. She will have to stand on stage with Sanders and answer to him. That should be interesting.

Click here for more of our esteemed panel's thoughts on the above three candidates, as well as Jeb Bush, Elizabeth Warren, and Scott Walker, among others.

Social success
Fidelzeid (PRWeek):
How do you see candidates using social media in this upcoming election? Who is excelling? Where is progress still needed?

McConnon (DDC): In terms of acquiring data and listening, great strides have been made into gaining insights about where audiences are and what they are truly thinking. Mastering outbound communications is where much progress still needs to be made.

Sheridan (Sheridan): We’re all trying to figure out the secret sauce of Millennial activism. It starts with realizing YouTube celebrities play a bigger role in helping them form opinions than any other source. New media platforms have created a whole new group of validators.

Between now and 2050, 81 million Millennials will vote. They will actually control the outcome of our civil society for generations to come. And they are all forming and validating their opinions in totally different places with completely different influencers. Candidates who figure it out fastest will have a huge leg up.

Balderston (Fleishman): President Obama seems ahead of the curve on this. He’s very comfortable in this new world and it shows. I’m not sure a lot of candidates can do that. It’s also worth noting how youthful campaigns are becoming. They are recruiting talent from high schools.

Sheridan (Sheridan): Rand Paul might be the most interesting candidate in this regard. He legitimately has a generation of people who follow him in new media that nobody else matches. His use of social media is more advanced than any other candidate.

Ragone (Ascension): It will be interesting to see how the Clinton campaign navigates this space, as she doesn’t have a serious primary foe. Social media, as well as traditional media, will take it upon itself to act as a type of proxy for a primary. Every campaign has a balloon narrative. Social media will be used as a way to puncture the balloon and get candidate off their narrative.

Maloney (Hess): Social media is seen as the great equalizer to big spending, but it actually takes a tremendous amount of resources to use it effectively. It takes great resource to engage with people and facilitate the back and forth that is the foundation of social media. If you are truly engaging 24-7, you need a team of people doing it. The campaigns that are not as well funded will not have the capacity to match what the bigger campaigns can do. Deciding how much resource to put into social media response and engagement is one of the tougher decisions to make.

Hutchinson (WGL): Big data and social media will become increasingly integrated. It’s going to be far more sophisticated, almost NSA-like, in terms of analysis and response as compared to previous campaigns. This will help immensely with micro-targeting.

Ingram (NAN): A politician who really gets social media is Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ). He has developed a large Twitter following because he responds to people in a way that is not at all automated. You could tell responses are his own. Granted, this has waned a bit since he entered the Senate. This might be an impossible scenario for a presidential candidate. However, it does highlight the dangers of thinking an automated response can possibly have the same resonance as a personal, authentic one.

Glickfield (Beekeeper): Those most successful at social media have the authenticity down, but they also get the real-time interaction. They use humor. They find ways to be relatable. So even if you’re tweeting with a candidate or major organization and you know it’s not actually the candidate or CEO responding to you, as long as you’re relatable in real-time and can let your hair hang down in a way that most organizations or candidates probably won’t be comfortable with, you will resonate on social media.

Ross (UPS): With newspaper readership and network-news viewership declining, people are obviously choosing to get their news from varied and multiple sources. In turn, this presents campaigns an even greater challenge to get targeted messaging to the right voters.

However, while social media is vitally important, the mainstream media still sets the narrative and tone for the campaigns. Candidates cannot simply circumvent mainstream media. They’ll end up being an asterisk in the outcome if they do that.

McConnon (DDC): Big data tracks media consumption patterns down to a frightening degree of accuracy. Much more so than even a few years ago, campaigns can tell with great specificity where people are spending their time across all platforms – and for how long. From there, you can plan your strategies accordingly.

Taking a stand
Fidelzeid (PRWeek):
How can corporations best determine when they should and should not take a definitive position on a key public affairs issue?

Ragone (Ascension): If the issue directly intersects with your ability to do business, you must take a vocal and public viewpoint. In fact, you should take a leadership position in such issues. For us, matters such as the Affordable Care Act, Medicaid expansion, and generic pricing come to mind. We have a responsibility and obligation to speak out in a way that protects the interests of the people to whom we deliver care.

Sheridan (Sheridan): Smart companies understand the need to get in front of situations and not wait to react. The NFL, for example, would have been so much better off working with domestic violence professionals well ahead of all the recent issues that came out. Getting out in front actually protects organizations.

Ragone (Ascension): There is a big difference between reacting to where the winds of change are going and actually getting in front of those winds. Purchasing decisions are increasingly being made based on how consumers feel about a company. For that reason alone, corporations need to think about issues differently.

Ingram (NAN): One way for a company to get ahead is to look at their own employees. Starbucks’ Race Together campaign was the result of an internal survey of where employees felt the company was on diversity. The effort did not quite work out, but it does offer an example of a company trying to get ahead of an issue based on what their employees were telling it. If nothing else, that makes good business sense.

Hutchinson (WGL): As much as 15 or 20 years ago, we really focused on the issue of poverty. We partnered with several entities. Today, corporations are increasingly moving toward private-public and public-public partnerships in order to proactively address some of those issues and not take the burden on themselves.

Balderston (Fleishman): What Lou is talking about represents the new way to solve problems. Shared value is a huge concept gaining momentum now.

While I was at the State Department, we talked about smart power. Every corporation, NGO, and foundation must have a smart power strategy where they really look at their assets and liabilities. Partnerships are not about money anymore. They’re about sharing intellectual property, networks, ideas, and values. Furthermore, corporations, in particular, are increasingly coming together with other entities to try and solve problems without necessarily having the full power of government behind them.

Jaffe (ANA): Authenticity is crucial in this discussion. If your behavior is not congruent with what you’re saying, people will notice. And remember: silence is also a position. Not stepping up in certain situations will be noticed, too.

Maloney (Hess): You can’t just chime in on an issue for political expediency. If you’re going to engage and be supportive of a particular issue, you must put the weight of the company behind it.

Ross (UPS): Perspective, context, and response proportionality are all key considerations. Executives will often want to come out and make a statement right away, but sometimes things can be addressed effectively with a more junior spokesperson on a tweet or blog.

Baltimore and beyond
Fidelzeid (PRWeek):
Recent events in Baltimore bring into focus a very sensitive issue – race relations. What are the keys to messaging around a subject that is so important, emotional, and divisive?

Ingram (NAN): In terms of what is happening in Baltimore – and many other cities – companies must be honest and authentic in their responses. Don’t just say what you think is politically correct. And don’t be silent. What does that say to your employees, many of whom likely feel strongly about it?

When companies think about such issues, it leads to a larger question about diversity practices. On the surface, that might seem unconnected, but what happened in Baltimore, Ferguson, MO, and other cities goes back to the lack of opportunity for people in those areas, so it is related. If companies really want to address what happened in Baltimore, addressing the achievement gap that exists for young people of color would be a good place to start. It need not be a statement about the situations with the police. It can very well be a statement – followed by action – on how we address the inequities that exist in our country.

Ragone (Ascension): We have 1,200 associates in St. Louis, 400 of them are five minutes from Ferguson. We didn’t feel as if we needed to weigh in other than to just ask for healing in our community, though we donated tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of supplies.

Helping the community heal is vital, but equally so is getting to the underlying causes. To that end, we’ve taken a very active approach with a fairly new nonprofit in St. Louis to reduce criminal recidivism. If you look at the criminal population, people who have been jailed for a certain number of years, the recidivism rates are huge – 70% or 80%. If you can lower those by job training, education, opportunity when they get out, and mentoring, it dramatically impacts the community. You want to be judged by what you do in your community, not what you say.

Hutchinson (WGL): The first step for organizations is to identify what role they can play in those different areas that contributes to a solution. Diversity means different things to different entities. In many cases, diversity is primarily driven by the bottom-line benefit, as opposed to dealing with the day-to-day issues employees face and the challenges they encounter in having an open conversation about it. Companies have to get to that latter point.

Sheridan (Sheridan): Based on the community reaction, I truly saw Baltimore as less of a riot and more of a revolution. Those myriad pictures of people truly connecting to their community really inspired me.

The concerning part is we tend to view these situations as one-offs. We’ll solve this one problem and be done with it. What we really need is a national commitment to solve these issues because they are not one-offs. And there are fairly simple solutions where real hope and progress can be achieved.

Glickfield (Beekeeper): Revolution is truly the right word, but not necessarily in terms of solutions, but rather that instances such as Baltimore are forcing crucial conversations to be had about what we want for our country.

Bringing it back to our industry, we will be looking at a minority-majority America very soon. We are unprepared for that, particularly as we look at who is making our messaging decisions. Are we really being inclusive or are we just talking in circles?

Ross (UPS): I was working in the White House when President Clinton launched the One America program, a race initiative to start a national dialogue. We need something like that again. My company recently appointed a chief diversity officer and we are having those discussions internally.

These efforts have to be across the spectrum. Everybody has to partner. We’re working with the Labor Department on initiatives for apprenticeships, training, and job placement. We’re also a part of the Joining Forces initiative to help veterans take the skills they’ve learned in the armed forces and get jobs in the private sector.

Balderston (Fleishman): I spent a lot of time outside the US while at the State Department. In that time I learned the greatest asset the US possesses is its diversity. One out of five Americans are first or second generation from another country. We absolutely have the ability to work together.

I am also a big believer in stepping back from time to time to truly ponder exactly what we are doing. I think back to Patricia Arquette’s Oscars speech where she called for wage and gender equality. Upon hearing that, I did a little survey in my office. I discovered we are actually measuring up well on that front, but it was very important I took that step to ensure it. I’m in a position where I can do something about this, so it is my responsibility to take that action. I strongly recommend every person of authority in their organizations take similar temperature checks. It all starts with having these sometimes-uncomfortable conversations.

Click here for more from this roundtable, including a look at the particular challenges of advancing agendas when the current administration’s term is nearing completion.

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