Sure, it takes clout and connections to make The Power 25 list of lobbyists. However, PR also plays a large role in these annual rankings. Steve Lilienthal reports.
Fortune magazine's second annual ranking of the The Power 25: The Influence Merchants is creating buzz inside the Beltway. The groups were cited for their lobbying clout, but in most cases their ability to do PR is as much a part of the story as hallway conversations with members of Congress by paid lobbyists.
PR conscious organizations including the American Association of Retired Persons, the National Federation of Independent Business, Credit Union National Association were among the groups that did well.
When told the results of the survey, lobbyist Don Fierce said, ' When you have a dominant issue out front to contend with, (a trade association or union should realize that) it's important to have PR. PR firms don't get the recognition they deserve.'
Ten years ago, the lobbying effort could be concentrated in the hands of ex-members of Congress. But the revolving door nature of recent Congressional sessions ensures a constant influx of new members and aides.
'High turnover and change on the Hill means members are more concerned with what people are saying back home than in Washington,' explains Fierce about the rising importance of PR and grassroots lobbying.
A prime example cited by Fortune is the American Association of Health Plans, which represents HMOs. Dr. Stuart Rothenberg, publisher of The Rothenberg Political Report, says, 'They'd been getting beat up in the free media for so long they've tried to use TV advertising and aggressive PR to get their own views out.'
Similarly, the National Beer Wholesalers Association (NBWA) David Rehr, profiled in the Fortune article, is considered to be a top lobbyist. But Rehr's efforts are backed up by NBWA's strong grassroots PR operation, which has supporters in every congressional district. NBWA moved from 34th to 24th place.
Fortune hired Democratic pollster Mark Mellman and Republican pollster Bill McInturff to survey 2,700 senior Hill legislators and their aides and lobbyists. Questionnaires were mailed, and 500 surveys were returned.
Some critics claim the survey is a 'self-selecting sample' that probably largely consists of lobbyists versus the people affected by lobbyists - the lawmakers.
'Is it a Congressman who's filling out the survey? Is it a senior member of the Clinton administration who's filling it out? I doubt it,' one PR agency official suggests.
Defenders of the survey contend the mailing is sent to well-known senior lobbyists, aides on the Hill and within the administration.
However, even the PR agency official concedes the list by and large is a decent reflection of which groups matter.
The one exception was the Credit Union National Association's skyrocketing from 70th place last year to 8th in this year's ranking. That reflects a big legislative battle over credit unions and some savvy lobbying and PR on CUNA's behalf.
CUNA, assisted by Hill & Knowlton, showed themselves to be strong players when confronting a tough fight. 'But are they going to be number eight on an ongoing basis?' the aide asks doubtfully.
Republican political consultant Jim Innocenzi thinks the ranking often states the obvious. If an association had a bad year legislatively, the members would not need the survey to tell them that. But he adds: 'Any association on the edge one way or the other - this ranking might have some impact.'
Organizations that do well on the survey are willing to accept the credit.
'We feel pretty good about it,' says the National Restaurant Association's Elaine Graham, about their organization's move from 24th to 15th.
The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), number three, is considered to be among Washington's savviest groups. Representing small business owners, they have a largely unified membership that helps give clear focus to their legislative agenda. They're activist and PR conscious. Right now, they're in the midst of waging a massive one million-plus petition drive to terminate the IRS tax code. Also, the NFIB invests in PR. Its media relations department has eight staffers. Goddard Clausen and Selz/Seabolt Communications are the PR firms that work for them.
That's not the only business association on the move in the rankings.
The US Chamber of Commerce was considered to be a staid organization in recent years compared to the dynamism of NFIB. Part of the problem is that the Chamber represents both small and large businesses with a variety of different needs. But a new president, Tom Donohue, came to the Chamber about a year ago. The Chamber climbed from 15th place to 11th in the survey.
'Tom Donohue brought a new focus to the Chamber's activities. We're working on the same 50 to 100 issues, but we're putting more emphasis on top priorities and making sure they get articulated,' explains the Chamber's Frank Coleman.
Labor unions dipped dramatically in the ratings. The National Education Association (NEA), for example, plummeted from 9th to 21st.
One former Democratic aide on Capitol Hill remarked that labor unions tend to misspend their money PR wise, suggesting it hurts their clout.
Both the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers advertise in large newspapers such as The Washington Post and The New York Times. But most Americans, the former aide noted, rely on local TV news and talk radio to obtain information. 'I don't know who they're talking to, but it's not their members,' the former aide said.
Others think the unions are being underrated. The AFL-CIO took a dip this year, moving to 5th from 3rd place. But the union lobbying and electioneering efforts had met with success prior to the 1997 survey. This year, the efforts were more low-key. But the AFL-CIO receives credit for having helped produce a strong Democratic showing in this year's elections.
The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) is considered to be a giant. They have a huge staff, and a big PR operation. They're certainly visible. Jim Martin of Sixty Plus, a relatively new conservative alternative to AARP, says his rival's success has been predicated on '40 years of PR.' But one interest group representative interviewed by PRWeek questioned: 'Who's going to be against Social Security?'
On the other hand, groups like the American Farm Bureau does well given their more limited interests. 'They're aggressive and conservative and they have a much tougher road to hoe than AARP,' he said.
Fierce notes that success in the rankings may come with a price. Some of the most successful groups may have extinguished legislative threats for the time being, but as Fierce notes: 'It'll be hard for some groups to hold their ranking.'.