Regional Roundtable: Washington DC

In this third year of its Regional Forums, PRWeek will focus on seven top markets: Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, the Bay Area, Washington, DC, Atlanta, and Texas.

In this third year of its Regional Forums, PRWeek will focus on seven top markets: Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, the Bay Area, Washington, DC, Atlanta, and Texas.

For each of these regions, leading PR professionals from a variety of agencies, corporations, nonprofits, and other organizations will take part in a roundtable discussion about the PR issues that affect them and their peers. Julia Hood, Douglas Quenqua, and Mark Hand were in Washington, DC, for this year's fifth PRWeek Regional Forum.

Click here for the pdf.


David Albritton (The Caraway Group): I was at the United Way when the tsunami hit. It changed how we did everything. Unfortunately, we had almost the same thing with Katrina, except it was in our backyard. So I'd like to hear about the impact of recent events here in the US.

Sheila Tate (Powell Tate): I'm a national advisory board member of the Salvation Army. It's been a fascinating experience. I also chair its public affairs and development committee. We changed agencies, too, to a small crisis shop who impressed us.

The extraordinary attention the Salvation Army has received by virtue of its superb work and its presence in all those areas, as well as the deft handling by this agency, has made a huge difference. It hasn't sought to raise a penny, yet it's taken in $200 million. It's also gotten incredible publicity. But it's been so fast and furious that if you don't have people on the ground down there watching every single thing - it's not just communications, it's everything.

Enid Doggett (American Federation of Government Employees): I want to talk about it from another perspective. I work with the union that represents the FEMA workers, the Coast Guard, the Border Patrol, and the prisons. The story was through our FEMA headquarters union leadership, which had actually sent a letter about a year ago to members of Congress warning them about FEMA. But the media hadn't picked up on this. It took about a week to get in touch with [FEMA employee] Leo Bosner. He took it upon himself to resend the letter to members of Congress. And then after he sent the letter, I got a call from Gannett News Service asking if I had seen[it]. We were not prepared for the onslaught of media attention. It wasn't hard, since the media had been on the ground for so long, to distinguish between it being a managerial problem and it being a worker problem. For us, it did create a really good situation in terms of the image people now have of government workers.

Nick Braden (Humane Society of the United States): I'd just like to bring up the communications challenges in general that this disaster created. From my perspective, being the VP of communications, we want to get across that this was a human tragedy and an animal tragedy, but that humans are certainly first. But we entered into this situation where we were there on the ground ready to go into these areas and we couldn't get in. They were refusing to allow us in. It created a public health threat because a lot of people were literally dying in these areas because they refused to leave without their pets. We actually created the largest pet shelter ever in the country, over 1,500 animals in the shelter at once, coming in, coming out.

Once you got down there and tried to communicate with media outside, however, you couldn't do it. Sometimes I could get calls coming into my cell phone, but I couldn't even communicate with my CEO who was in a trailer 100 yards away. So you have an immense communications challenge.

You also have the problem that literally all the producers change from the weekend to Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. So after you educated one CNN producer about something, you had to go back and start again to educate the next. If you don't, the message gets drowned out. People start saying, "What are you doing? You care more about animals than you do people," which is not the case at all. It was just amazing what we learned. Our website definitely helped educate media before they called us. That was quite helpful.

Tate (Powell Tate): And it showed in [Hurricane] Rita. First of all, the policy changed and people were allowed to take their animals with them.

Phil Armstrong (Zeno Group): I wouldn't say that there was any silver lining in all those clouds, but for us, Katrina created a lot of new assignments. A lot of our corporate clients came to us and asked, "OK, what do we do? How do we do well by doing good and not be crassly commercial and exploitative of the victims and the situation down there? [And] how do we get ourselves organized quickly and make an impact - not that we can take credit for, but at some point we can feel good about?"  

Whether it's an extension of their ongoing CSR efforts or of their marketing communications efforts, clients wanted us to drop everything and help them figure how to go in and make a meaningful contribution. It's a delicate balancing act because you can give away product. You can give away time or money. It's a question of how much you want to step forward and actually beat your chest about what you've done.

Barbara Daly (Peace Corps): Coming from the Peace Corps, it's a little bit different in terms of our product. We market our volunteers. Katrina has changed things for us tremendously.

The Peace Corps has what we call a crisis corps program that's been in effect for 10 years. Those are former volunteers who've already served their two-year assignments and then sign up to be in our database in case there is an emergency, a natural disaster. We deployed our crisis corps volunteers to Thailand and Sri Lanka after the tsunami. Katrina was the first time we've had a mission assignment with FEMA. We have deployed volunteers domestically for the first time in our 45-year history.

In a sense, it's been a tremendous opportunity for the Peace Corps to get out there on the home front and do something in our own backyard. So we have 132 volunteers in the various Gulf region areas, working and helping hurricane victims get set up with aid, find family members and lost pets, and fill out their applications for federal aid.

On the communications front, it's getting the message out that there are people on the ground helping. But [now], Peace Corps is also doing this at home. When you think of Peace Corps, you think of developing countries. We have basically seen what we saw when we traveled to Sri Lanka and Thailand. It's amazing to witness it here at home.

Douglas Quenqua (PRWeek): You were talking about corporations wanting to do good during this. Has the media been open to those stories? Or are comments like, "It's self-promotional, so we don't want to hear about that" more the normal reaction?

Armstrong (Zeno): There is that danger. You walk a fine line between what's self-promotional and really exploiting the situation for your own marketing. Most of our corporate clients have asked us to soft-pedal it. And frankly, the media don't have a whole lot of time. Outlets are not devoting a big news hole to that kind of coverage, except in situations like Wal-Mart, for example, where they were so Johnny-on-the-spot doing the right thing, and really making an immediate contribution and impact in that area. It certainly helped to improve Wal-Mart's reputation overnight.

Patrick Cleary (National Association of Manufacturers): We don't have clients. We have members. What we did is post an honor roll. When we got word of what members were doing, we'd post it. And we got enormous amount of press on that. It also got us to tell a story about manufacturers. Every place you looked, you saw manufacturers at work.

Joe Clayton (Widmeyer Communications): I think that another Katrina angle is the impact that this federal funding responsibility has had on anybody who has a client with an appropriations interest. Oftentimes, that is a client who has invested a great deal of time and effort through more than one round trying to get an appropriation to the point where it's going to pass. The impact of this has created huge questions about how the federal government is going to pay for itself. There's a lot of work going on to put a nice Katrina wrapper around whatever your interest is to the point where it's getting a little ridiculous.

Debra Silimeo (Hager Sharp): A related thing is that budget cuts have impacted what I consider to be the responsibility of government. Government finds out things about health, public safety, education, things that need to be communicated to consumers. So, there's a public information role. And I think that budget cuts are affecting that.

There's also been a shift in some of the more mundane things, like safe driving or eating nutritiously or emergency preparedness, although you have to wonder after Katrina how well that shift is working. The other thing that concerns me - not Katrina-related - is that we're starting to look at everything that government does to reach out to people through this prism of politics and spin.

Tony Bullock (Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide): I remember when I worked for [former New York] Sen. [Patrick] Moynihan during the [Monica] Lewinsky episode. Sen. [John] McCain (R-AZ) was with us one day and said something like, "This whole thing has sucked all the oxygen. Nobody can talk about anything else."

In a way, what impacted us here on many fronts was that the work we were doing for all of our clients on other matters sort of blew up. Nobody wanted to talk about anything but Katrina.

We had all kinds of stuff that just got stopped for weeks. Even in today's multifaceted media, it was Katrina all day, page after page. If it wasn't related to Katrina, no one was really interested. A lot of business as usual was turned on its head. We're now sort of getting back to normal.

Braden (HSUS): I recall being down at the Lamar Dixon Expo Center in Gonzalez (LA), where this animal rescue shelter was. We had planned a conference call with some activists to discuss a horse slaughter bill that was coming up in the Senate and what we did to get press - and we did get press. I was shocked. But we got it because we did target those states where the horse slaughter plants were. We were able to get press in the midst of this disaster. This was a totally different issue and we were still able to get some press out of it. There were some small exceptions.

Jose Rodriguez-Pagan (Comunicad/MAPA Communications): A lot of our clients have basically been consumed by Katrina. The financial industry and some of the GSEs [government-sponsored enterprises] we work with have slowed things down and taken a look at some of the long-term effects in terms of home-ownership, lending, and the monetary repercussions that will follow the fact that a lot of people are no longer paying their mortgages. How do they now get the message out about what must happen, what they need to do to basically stop credit problems, and other things that are happening in terms of the lending industry?

Julia Hood (PRWeek): Which issues related to Katrina will stick around and which will we forget about?

Albritton (Caraway): I think, unfortunately, those families that left New Orleans and went into Houston, who have been living in a hotel and don't have the means to sustain themselves for very many months - maybe they have car issues, don't have a job, or can't pay their mortgage - that story will get lost. There will be thousands of families in that predicament who we'll forget about. It won't be front-page news.

Daly (Peace Corps): It's already died down. And this is exactly what happened with the tsunami. Granted, this is here in the US, so I think it will have legs for a while in terms of media.

Doggett (AFGE): One story that I hope doesn't die down is the story of the dedicated public servant.

Bullock (Ogilvy): I've got to be honest. I don't think government came off too well at any level. [Michael Brown and FEMA] put a huge pox on the house of the entire federal response. I have to say I don't think the mayor of New Orleans or the governor of Louisiana showed a lot of stuff here either.

Rodriguez-Pagan (Comunicad): I'd hope that the states would be more proactive now in terms of communications, especially in reaching the low- to middle-income families that perhaps don't pay that much attention to the news. They were the ones who were greatly affected in this particular incident.

Silimeo (Hager Sharp): We should find out how to communicate. Not just the technology of doing it, but what to say to make people do what they must do, whether it's stay in place or evacuate.

Hood (PRWeek): What are the issues outside of Katrina that are preoccupying the minds of your clients or organizations?

Cleary (NAM): The issue that directly affects my organization and everybody around this table is cost. How are public affairs, PR, and communications helping an organization's bottom line? We all have to make that case.

Rodriguez-Pagan (Comunicad): In a crisis, that's the first thing that goes. Unfortunately, it's sometimes very hard for a company to understand why it needs PR. It's harder to make it tangible for the company in terms of the ROI, so that's the first thing that disappears.

Daly (Peace Corps): It's very important to have the CEO or whoever is in charge understand the value of PR.

Armstrong (Zeno): It's gratifying when you get a corporate client that understands the way business gets done in DC. Whether it's regulatory compliance, the affecting energy policy, or whatever it might be, a lot of clients in the Midwest or West don't appreciate the day-to-day impact that public policymakers have on the way in which they do business. When you find clients or CEOs who are enlightened about that and are willing to come in and engage in the public policy process and become better known and spread their reputation around Washington, it's helpful.

Pat's job, for example, would be a lot easier in terms of how his association's membership can be affected, but it also helps them in terms of how they can manage the process, because it can be managed. You can have an impact in Washington as an individual corporation, but you have to get into the game.

Doggett (AFGE): I have a question, particularly for the agency reps. Will Tom DeLay's problems have any impact on how your corporate clients do business or are they just his problems and won't affect anybody else?

Clayton (Widmeyer): I don't think it will affect us because it is an individual event. But one thing I've noticed in the past few years that seems different from eight or nine years ago is the frequency with which politically connected individuals have gotten a couple years in whatever office with whatever member and have gone out and created a very lucrative government relations practice that is heavily driven by ideological connections and political relationships.

We used to have a much easier time getting public affairs assignments from corporations that were less sensitive to the political relationships that we had. They were looking for capabilities and client experiences. The DeLay K Street Project is part of that. I feel like it's different now. It's more important for us to pay attention to who is working at the firm and what their relationships are.

Bullock (Ogilvy): I think Sarbanes-Oxley and issues regarding ethical conduct of corporations are becoming a large discussion topic among many clients. They feel the need to get ahead of that issue. They want to be sure that their noses are clean and that they're not the next big company whose name is splattered across the paper for things they should not have done. I think Sarbanes-Oxley has had a mostly positive, but chilling effect on the conduct of companies. And we're seeing a large PR component to how corporations are responding and complying with Sarbanes-Oxley.


Hood (PRWeek): Has there been any impact from the negative perception of a government agency using a PR firm, such as the Department of Education (DoE) and how The New York Times recently portrayed the EPA's plans to seek PR help to promote its research?

Silimeo (Hager Sharp): The investigation still continues, so it's not an isolated incident. They've issued a report on the DoE and they're looking into other departments, so I don't know if it's the end of the story. We may have seen the most egregious thing.

But you know there's a whole conversation that ought to go on about PR tactics that we're not really having because it's colored by policy promotion that went on with a particular VNR. I think there are some things that we as PR pros need to talk about. We must figure out the best way to communicate these things and be really up front. And I think all of the agencies are making sure to dot their I's and cross their T's right now.

Clayton (Widmeyer): That's critical. Communicating to and educating the public about consumer protection or public health or whatever is part of governing. There are program officers all throughout the government whose job it is to make sure that the public understands about household chemicals.

Braden (HSUS): Frankly, a lot of times they don't have the resources in-house to do that.

Jill Farrell (Judicial Watch): Education is one thing, but affecting public policy can cross federal law. The government can't manufacture news.

Armstrong (Zeno): Working for a government agency has become a big cottage industry in this town. In fact, it's no longer a cottage industry. I think it's a big revenue stream for a lot of agencies, mine included. Everybody has a big chunk of revenue coming in from federal contracts. Twenty years ago, we wouldn't think twice about working for the government. It's too bureaucratic, we felt. We didn't know how to manage the accounting side of it. But now with the advent of the GSA schedule, more cutbacks on the federal side, and more of a need to communicate to different publics in creative ways, it was just a great opportunity.

Tate (Powell Tate): It's often mandated by Congress.

Armstrong (Zeno Group): Exactly. And I think some of the things that have taken place recently, some of the indignation that has come out about VNRs have been driven by partisanship. They have not been driven by right or wrong as much as they've been driven by disagreement on a partisan issue as it relates to the communications of a particular policy or program of a government agency. And that's part and parcel of what's going on in town. There's one side or the other. And you're either on one side or the other. Gray areas have gone away.


Hood (PRWeek): Regarding the new media environment, would you say that the clients and organizations you work with are in a more reactive mode right now, or are you trying to exploit new opportunities to reach the public better, like blogs, podcasts, etc.?

Tate (Powell Tate): I think companies are intrigued by them. They don't like the idea of giving up the kind of control that they might have to. If somebody is out there beating the heck out of some product, you need to know about it quickly and figure out what to do about it. So you're either in a defensive posture or you're trying to figure out how to engage in this new media.

Braden (HSUS): You have to use every communications vehicle at your disposal. You've got blogs. You've got the mainstream media. You've got trade press. You've got chat rooms.

Clayton (Widmeyer): Your need to make clients understand that it may not be for them. If a client wants to start his or her own blog on behalf of his or her company, this must be a client that is a communicator because you are committing to a dialogue with all kinds of people. It requires a culture on the client's part where that fits for them. And I don't think blogs or any sort of constant engagement necessarily fits every client.

Cleary (NAM): Seeing some of these big companies do blogs is like watching your parents dance to rock 'n roll music.

Bullock (Ogilvy): We've had interesting discussions about what constitutes a journalist today and who is in the media and who isn't. Where do we draw these lines today? At some point, it gets so overwhelming. When we do a media list now for a client, it goes on for 18 pages.

Doggett (AFGE): As for other communications vehicles, you can talk about blogs, but there's a huge audience that still doesn't have internet access.

Tate (Powell Tate): One of the big problems early in Iraq was figuring out how to communicate credibly with Iraqis and who those opinion leaders were that people listened to. When the US tried to set up a broadcasting operation, it was ignored because the Iraqis just didn't give it any credibility.

Rodriguez-Pagan (Comunicad): That certainly applies to the work that we do. A lot of our work is within the Hispanic market. A lot of what we do is specifically on relationship management because of the access to these major opinion leaders. We help our clients get the word out specifically to those leaders and to the communities that they represent. It makes it so much easier because they already trust you and know you. So it's very easy for you to present and open the door for your client. And it's also very easy for the client because they're immediately received as someone that's trusted as well.

Quenqua (PRWeek): What are the most important media outlets to get into now?

Daly (Peace Corps): The Washington Post will always be the biggest thing, especially if you can find some of the easier ways to get in, like Al Kamen's "In the Loop." People read those things.

Clayton (Widmeyer): I think the National Journal is really important. If you compare ads in the Journal from eight years ago to an issue today, the amount of corporate positioning ad pages is much more significant. The Journal is doing some phenomenal things.

Rodriguez-Pagan (Comunicad): We use specialty publications a lot, especially when we want to reach the Latino community. We've seen the proliferation of Hispanic newspapers all over the major cities, not just here in DC. It's a huge market that only reads these papers.

Cleary (NAM): We use The Wall Street Journal because we get more eyeballs that we care about there. But we obviously spend a lot of time with the Post. Just in the last year, we realized that we would go to the papers where our members live. So you look at where the concentration of manufacturers are. I joke that sometimes they don't even change our typos.


Hood (PRWeek): How would you assess the job market in DC? Is there a lot of hiring going on?

Bullock (Ogilvy): Salaries have improved quite dramatically on Capitol Hill. Entry-level salaries for positions in agencies are not as attractive because the congressional offices are paying them considerably more today than they were eight or 10 years ago.

Clayton (Widmeyer): We just finished increasing the first four slots in our agency in terms of starting salary.

Bullock (Ogilvy): Also, the more senior staffers, especially committee staffers, think that when they step out of the Rayburn Building they're going to be swimming in $350,000-a-year sort of stuff. They figure they've got one bold step forward. They want to make it the best possible deal they can get. It's increasingly hard to meet the salary requirements, even though the response is strong. It takes a long time for some of the corporate salary structures to meet the expectations that are out there.

Daly (Peace Corps): We have a position open right now. And we're federal government. I'm pretty impressed by the salary range that this position has. I think the private sector would be hard-pressed to compete with us. We've gotten tremendous applications for the
job. Surprisingly, a lot of people that are applying for it are overqualified.

Hood (PRWeek): What types of qualities do you need to do well in Washington?

Clayton (Widmeyer): I think campaign people do well, and Hill people sometimes do well, but we have not always had Hill people succeed all the time. By Hill people, I mean Hill press secretaries. If you're doing public affairs and issues management, I think that the campaign experience is the best.

Braden (HSUS): I think you're right. Primarily what you do in this town is issues management.

Armstrong (Zeno): Campaigns are about packaging and selling, too. So in terms of finding people that you can plug into marketing or communications roles, I agree with Joe. Campaign people are probably best prepared for that kind of environment. It's also much more of a consulting environment on a campaign as opposed to a more hierarchical environment in a congressional office. On a campaign, it's more of a boiler-room operation. You learn to speak up and make your view known in a campaign environment more so than you would in a federal or congressional office.

Rodriguez-Pagan (Comunicad): I think people skills are number one. We have some folks who come in with great r?sum?s, but they don't want to talk to anyone. It's all about talking to people and getting out there.

Daly (Peace Corps): From the press side of things, this isn't an easy town. There's so much going on. To hold a press conference, you've practically got to have God speaking [or] no one will come. You need tenacity and you must not get discouraged because you're competing against a wealth of other opportunities going on at the exact same time.

Hood (PRWeek): What about writing skills?

Albritton (Caraway): I was hiring a director of media relations last year and I got about 100 résumés or so. In a lot of cases, the writing samples were just not up to par, even for seasoned professionals with 20 years' experience.

Silimeo (Hager Sharp): Linked to that issue is content, really being able to get your arms around content. This isn't a town where you're promoting a new restaurant. You better be able to explain the issue. Content and writing are linked.

Braden (HSUS): You must be able to write and think like a reporter. If you're an entry-level person, that can be tough to do. But there's always a seed there. Normally, when I see résumés and writing samples, I can see that seed. If it's not there, I don't hire that person. I don't have time to baby them all the way up the line. They must be able to hit the ground running.

Farrell (Judicial Watch): We have a division of labor, geared to different talents. I don't mind having someone who is an excellent writer and has zero personal skills.

Clayton (Widmeyer): There's an important division of labor in the agency community, and that is having a senior-level individual who is an excellent practitioner but not a strong manager. Finding strong management skills in an agency and consulting environment - skills that would help motivate other staff - is a real challenge.


Hood (PRWeek): What do you hope to accomplish in your organization in the next year?

Bullock (Ogilvy): Our biggest challenge in the coming year will be to integrate our new lobbying firm, the Federalist Group, into what we're doing.

Cleary (NAM): Visibility and message will be our focus. It's that simple.

Doggett (AFGE): Slowing down the outsourcing of governmental services and also protecting whistleblowers.

Clayton (Widmeyer): My biggest challenge will be trying to get our firm to the next level. From an annual revenue perspective, we've been at about $8 million for the past three years in a row. The $10 million mark has been an important symbol for us. We've been making some investments to try to make that happen.

Albritton (Caraway): On the professional side, I will look for growth opportunities for our firm. Personally, I'll be focusing on diversity, creating opportunities to attract and retain more diverse populations into this career field. I talk to a lot of college-level kids. They've seen me in PRWeek or they've seen me at conferences and ask me about my career path, but a lot of them are not attracted to this field. Those that do end up coming find that they don't have opportunities and end up going elsewhere. I take it as a personal challenge to help attract and retain more people of color into PR.

Rodriguez-Pagan (Comunicad): We hope to manage our growth, but not through adding more overhead. We want to form some key strategic partnerships that perhaps fill the void on some of the services that we don't have, but yet basically have the same corporate culture that we do. That way, we can work well together as a team, tackle larger projects, and then survive dry spells without having to worry about all of the increased overhead that we're carrying.

Armstrong (Zeno): We're only a year old, so growth and financial performance are obviously my top goals. The strategy to get there for us is with research. We're really trying to build out our in-house research capability from an attitudinal standpoint, brand research, grassroots research. And we really want to use that to build our growth and our programs.

Daly (Peace Corps): One of our goals is to increase the visibility of Peace Corps today and what Peace Corps represents.

Silimeo (Hager Sharp): We enjoy seeing clients do good things. We do a lot of health, education, and public safety work. We like to see the impact of that. I hope we'll be able to continue to do that in DC's changing political atmosphere.

Farrell (Judicial Watch): Our goal is to get across that we are nonpartisan in our approach. We have limited resources, so we try to pick our battles. Certainly key to all of that is media relationships and having reporters get to know our people as people first. When reporters know you and can relate to you on a human level, you'll always have an easier time with perception management.

Tate (Powell Tate): My focus now and in the foreseeable future is on balancing growth and quality work because I always fear growing too rapidly. I don't like it. It tends to dislocate and minimize the attention given to quality.

Braden (HSUS): My biggest challenge now is to take an organization of over 350 people with many departments and bring them all together, integrate what they do, try to funnel that, and use all of the communications vehicles at our disposal for the biggest possible impact.

The Participants

David Albritton
SVP of communications, The Caraway Group

Phil Armstrong
Managing director, Zeno Group

Nick Braden
VP of comms, The Humane Society of the US

Tony Bullock
EVP, Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide

Joe Clayton
President and COO, Widmeyer Communications

Patrick Cleary
SVP of comms, Natl. Association of Manufacturers

Barbara Daly
Director of press relations, US Peace Corps

Enid Doggett
Comms director, American Federation of Government Employees

Jill Farrell
Director of media affairs, Judicial Watch

Jose Rodriguez-Pagan
SVP and GM, Comunicad/ MAPA Communications

Debra Silimeo
SVP, Hager Sharp

Sheila Tate
Vice chairman, Powell Tate/ Weber Shandwick

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in

Recommended for you

Recommended for you

Explore further