The Beltway's power alliances

Public affairs agencies are joining forces with lobbying firms, with potent results.

Public affairs agencies are joining forces with lobbying firms, with potent results.

Although he enjoyed working as a top lobbyist at powerhouse firm Patton Boggs in Washington, DC, Ron Christie jumped at the opportunity to lead Ruder Finn's new global government affairs practice.

Patton Boggs and RF were making a joint pitch to a potential client - a company interested in the stem-cell debate - when Christie struck up a rapport with RF co-CEO Kathy Bloomgarden. "They were very interested in having a government relations practice in DC and asked if I would be interested," Christie says. "I was a member of a great team over at Patton Boggs. But Kathy and [Ruder Finn Americas president Richard Funess] gave me the opportunity to build something from the ground up."

The path followed by Christie in finding his new job is becoming a familiar scenario in Washington, where PR agencies are increasingly mixing with lobbying firms. In fact, Christie says that his former boss, Tom Boggs, gave his blessing to Christie's move to RF "because he had done something similar when he was a younger man to create his law practice at Patton Boggs."

At RF, Christie has had remarkable success - after less than six months on the job - integrating the firm's existing PR clients with a new suite of government relations services. And the government relations practice has already become financially profitable, largely due to new business it has brought RF.

Heading into 2005, a top priority for RF was building greater access to key decision makers in Washington at all levels of government.

"Without a connection to these top echelons of government and federal agencies and public interest groups that are headquartered in DC, we felt as a PR firm we couldn't provide our clients a best overall approach to addressing their problems," Funess explains. "Clients are looking for lobbying and issues monitoring because, increasingly, the kinds of things that happen in this world have a lot to do with what happens in Washington."

Fellow DC firm Quinn Gillespie & Associates created a strong model, Christie says, by initially launching a lobbying practice, but then diversifying into strategic public affairs and communications. And like Quinn Gillespie, RF has created a bipartisan shop by recruiting Christie, a former Bush administration official, and Andy Rosenberg, a former legislative aide to Sen. Edward Kennedy, to lead its government affairs practice.

"I really think that the trend moving forward in the lobbying profession in the next several years is not just going to be a strict emphasis on lobbying and trying to get appropriations from the Hill, but it's the overall package and the overall suite of integrating PR services with the government affairs services, as well," Christie explains.

Integration versus partnership

Bob Sommer, MWW Group's EVP and director of public affairs, agrees with Christie and predicts that that the combination of PR and public affairs with lobbying services will completely dominate the field in the next decade.

"The sort of classic lawyer-lobbyist who by him- or herself is able to manage a campaign is becoming less and less likely as a growth area," Sommer says. "It's more integrated between the two specialties."

He believes the marriage of PR and government relations is a tremendous growth area, especially in a time of rampant partisanship and when Congress and state legislatures are relatively evenly divided between the two major political parties. "The market is nowhere near saturated," he says. "Growth opportunities abound."

Many PR firms - especially those owned by holding companies - have established alliances with specific lobbying firms and cite a mutually beneficial relationship. A spate of lobbying firm acquisitions by holding companies, beginning in the 1980s, made this a natural progression.

Some say this is not an ideal model. The strategy at independent firm Edelman, which has stayed out of the lobbying firm acquisition sweepstakes so far, has been to partner with government relations firms that best meet the needs of its clients. "We find it's better for our communications business to be able to partner with the best person for the job," Edelman vice chairman Leslie Dach says.

But the strategy of the large holding companies has been to add revenue by buying government relations firms and trying to create as much synergy as possible.

WPP Group is a key proponent of this strategy, having acquired many PR and lobbying shops during the past 20 years. WPP's portfolio includes four major DC lobbying firms: Timmons & Co., Wexler & Walker, BKSH & Associates, and Quinn Gillespie. Within its holding structure, there are layers of control. BKSH, for example, falls under Burson-Marsteller's umbrella.

"From a WPP perspective, the one thing nice about its acquisition of companies, whether they are PR or government relations, is that [WPP CEO] Martin Sorrell makes sure you keep your brand, your identity, and your culture," BKSH president and CEO Scott Pastrick says. "Along with coming up with a new model of marrying yourself to a PR entity, it's most important that these individual companies, which have been successful, remain that way and that they not be forced into a big bureaucracy."

Because BKSH has kept its own culture and maintains its own financial reporting, the company's relationship with Burson has been relatively conflict-free.

"There aren't a lot of tensions, which is surprising in a big bureaucracy," Pastrick adds.

Wexler, another WPP lobbying shop, operates within the orbit of Hill & Knowlton. "There was no effort on the part of anyone to fold us in under the H&K umbrella," Wexler MD Joel Molina says.

If a client is looking only for lobbying capabilities at the outset of a relationship, there is comfort in knowing that there is a PR firm affiliated with the lobbying shop that could easily be integrated into the same contract, Molina explains. "And I think a number of H&K's clients like very much the fact that they've got a much larger reach if there is a need for some help in Washington," he says. "Even if they're not using us initially, there is certainly a pattern of them engaging us down the road."

But Dach contends that the number of cross-referrals achieved by PR holding companies that own lobbying shops "is as much an aspiration as a reality." Edelman "has as many referrals from lobbying firms as a Burson or H&K does," he says. "But we may get ours from a wider number."

Success stories

One of the keys to a successful partnership with lobbyists, says Carolyn Tieger, head of Porter Novelli's public affairs practice in Washington, is developing a strong level of trust. PN does not have an in-house government relations capability but often partners with lobbying shops on public policy efforts.

"The reason lobbyists like working with us is because we want to make our communication efforts go hand-in-hand with what the lobbying strategy is," Tieger says. PN, for example, is part of a team of lobbyists, lawyers, and communications professionals working to reduce the burden of asbestos legal claims on US companies. The PR firm was retained by the Asbestos Alliance, led by the National Association of Manufacturers, to provide counsel in support of the major legislative effort.

Working with member-company government relations representatives and outside lobbyists, led by Timmons & Co., PN has prepared congressional testimony and speeches, crafted and placed Op-Eds, and managed press interviews and events. To support the alliance's lobbying effort, PN also created a grassroots information kit that includes tips on contacting legislators and talking points for lawmaker visits.

"We're very discreet in terms of all the issues we have to discuss," Tieger says. "We play behind the scenes."

After four years of working with lobbyists on the campaign, PN celebrated the introduction last spring of the "Fairness in Asbestos Injury Act of 2005" in the Senate, a bill with bipartisan support.

Caren Turner, president of Turner Government & Public Affairs, notes that a relationship between PR and lobbying often is crucial in getting legislation passed. Turner's lobbying firm represents the National Gun Safe Coalition, a consortium of safe manufacturers that is pushing legislation in Congress to provide a tax credit toward the purchase of a gun safe. The group, which is working with New Jersey PR firm Steinreich Communications, feels such a law would encourage the storage of firearms in residential gun safes, thereby reducing the number of gun thefts and accidents.

The bill has the support of Sens. Larry Craig (R-ID), a board member of the National Rifle Association, and Charles Schumer (D-NY), a strong gun control advocate.

"To have this bipartisanship publicized through PR venues is extremely helpful to us as a lobbyist," Turner said. "I think we've got a wonderful chance of passing this."

The legal factor

Some of the lobbying shops' top competitors are law firms that have built powerful lobbying practices. Patton Boggs, which declined to be interviewed for this article, was a pioneer in merging public policy expertise with traditional legal practice.

Among the PR firms that Patton Boggs works with on a regular basis is Qorvis Communications. In fact, Patton Boggs opted to become a minority investor in Qorvis when Michael Petruzzello founded the agency five years ago.

"Both firms, Qorvis and Patton Boggs, saw that the circles in which we operate, in terms of law, lobbying, and communications, were converging," Petruzzello says. "I remember when I met with [Patton Boggs partner] Stuart Pape and first discussed this idea, we were practically finishing each other's sentences. We were thinking so much alike. They saw the world the same way we did."

For clients with crisis communications needs, it makes sense to work with a firm like Patton Boggs, where the legal, government relations, and PR teams can work together. "It's not three different units presenting three different sets of ideas, but one team coming up with one strategy," Petruzzello explains. "It makes it easier for a CEO to manage a crisis."

Some law firms have turned toward developing their own in-house communications departments. Bracewell & Giuliani, a Texas-based law firm with a large DC presence, has built a strategic communications practice to complement its extensive lobbying operations.

"We find that there are important economies of scale and economies of skill that are created when the same people that are advocates on public policy issues or in court also have access within their firm to advocate to the media," says Scott Segal, a partner at Bracewell. "There is much lost when a law firm has to turn to another exterior organization, explain to them the particulars of an issue, and hope that the quick tutorial informs the media relations work that they are going to be doing."

By integrating the practices, lobbyists and PR practitioners have a much better chance of staying on message and providing a more cost-effective service for the client, Segal says.

When Bracewell pitches its suite of services, it rarely competes against another law firm.

"For traditional legislative services, we are competing against other law firms and dedicated legislative shops and lobby firms," he says. "For the communications work, we may be competing against PR firms or grassroots firms. But it is seldom that we compete against another firm for all of those services simultaneously."

Hogan & Hartson, the largest law firm in Washington and a major lobbying player, selects a PR firm depending on the needs of its clients, says Michael House, director of the firm's legislative group. Unlike Bracewell, Hogan & Hartson does not intend to get into the communications business, he says.

"We find that we have such a wide range of client needs that ... to have our own in-house PR firm that could deal with all of those needs at any given one time would just not be cost-effective for us," House explains.

One of the problems that Hogan & Hartson encounters is finding PR firms that can provide top-notch services to its clients. "With some of the very large ones, you just get lost in the shuffle," he says. "I'm much more comfortable with what I call the medium-size PR firm or small firms where I know the people, where I know I'm going to get the services of the primary person and not get shunted off to somebody, and where I have a long-time working relationship with them, so that I trust their work."

Compatibility questions

For public affairs and lobbying firms that work together, there can be some professional differences.

"The cultures are a little bit different between lobbying and PR, which means that, in order to understand who their clients are and what they're doing for their clients and vice versa, physically being in the same space and working together on a day-to-day basis has really created the synergies that we wanted from interpractice billings," says BKSH's Pastrick, referring to his lobbying firm's relationship with Burson.

At Wexler & Walker, Molina remembers the early days of the firm's relationship with H&K, when there was actually some competition between the two companies. "[H&K] had a much more vibrant lobbying practice at the time. But it's been pushed back somewhat now," he says. "They're much more focused on the communications side of the equation, so we're a lot more compatible with each other."

In addition to partnering with H&K, Wexler has good relationships with independent PR companies, depending on the client's budget. "If there is a tight budget and it doesn't make much sense for us to engage Hill & Knowlton, then we'll turn to another provider," he says.

Lobbyists and PR pros sometimes form uneasy alliances because there are different perspectives and objectives between the two groups, explains Tom Galvin, a partner with DC-based 463 Communications. But when government relations and PR teams work well together, they can achieve a powerful outcome, he says.

People who don't work in the lobbying profession also might have preconceived notions about what lobbyists do all day. RF's Christie faced many questions from his new colleagues about lobbying when he embarked on launching a global PR and government relations practice.

"My colleagues are not often accustomed to working with those who lobby and advocate for the government on a nearly daily basis," Christie says. "So it's been an educational curve for me to bring my colleagues up to speed on my practice group and what I do. And, similarly, they are working to bring me up to speed with how they do PR and how we can integrate that with government affairs."

In contrast to firms like RF and MWW quickly expanding their government relations practices, Segal contends that PR firms might not be best-suited for integrating lobbyists into their operations. "I think it makes more sense frankly to put the PR operations inside the law firms and the legislative shops because that's where the substantive expertise resides," he says.

PR firms, however, typically become specialists in various industries and often hire practitioners who have developed expertise in these subject areas. Given his firm's close relationship with Patton Boggs, Qorvis' Petruzzello says he tries to attract communications pros who are also attorneys so they can understand what the lobbying firms want to accomplish.

While the cultures between PR and lobbying will continue to clash at times, the big holding companies are expected to remain on the prowl for smaller government relations firms that have fashioned their practices around specialties, such as healthcare or trade, and can provide synergies to the larger corporate entities. And an increasing number of independent PR firms are likely to build in-house government relations practices. Under either strategy, the principals recognize that PR and lobbying are practices that must work in harmony in order for a legislative campaign to result in a win for the client.

Building relationships

Carolyn Tieger, head of Porter Novelli's public affairs practice in Washington, and Frank Maisano, director of strategic communications for lobbyist Bracewell & Giuliani, discuss the types of strategies that PR firms and lobbyists use to win public policy campaigns.

PRWeek: Are partnerships between PR and lobbying practices the best route to go, or are firms that have integrated in-house PR and lobbying practices more effective in helping clients?

Maisano: We feel that integrating gives us a leg up in terms of the advantage of [having] all the talent under one roof. It allows us to be more specific, more detailed, and more substantive. We see it as essential to have it integrated under one roof. It helps us move quicker and more deftly.

Tieger: Our business model is to be a free agent. We do not have in-house lobbyists. What we strive to do, and have done very effectively, is develop strong personal relationships with major lobbying shops across town. Our formula is that we'd like to win the respect of the lobbyists and the clients, and vice versa, so that there are continued opportunities to work together down the road.

PRWeek: Is there any tension that could spring up between government relations departments and PR practitioners?

Tieger: There's always tension. It can be usually three issues, at least in my opinion. One is, who is really in charge? [Second], sometimes there can be strategic disagreements over the larger strategic issues. And last of all, there's always the issue of the resources and how limited they are and how available they are.

Maisano: There is a natural tension when you're dealing with the media. In fact, many PR people try to be as open and as aggressive as possible. And I think that that's not necessarily in the nature of the government affairs person. They, in fact, are more likely to be a person who wants to deal with a member or a member's staff individually, without the disclosure laws that they have to follow. That is the real challenge that we [lobbyists] face.

PRWeek: What do PR firms need to learn about lobbying firms and vice versa?

Maisano: Having been at a big PR firm, having been at a small PR firm, and having been at a lobbying shop here, I think what PR firms can learn most is that there has to be the temperament and the ability to have substantive touches to the media. I think many times PR firms are a little short on understanding where the lobbying firm stands. There are situations where PR firms don't have that understanding and go into their game plan without having considered where the lobbying team sits. That can lead to a challenge.

Tieger: And that's why the whole formula of having a partnership and the mutual respect for each other is so key. We are called on so many times to take a lot of complex material and boil it down into something that we can take to the Hill [or] the media. When the focus is just on the communications side, I think PR firms, particularly the large ones that have strong PA shops, can bring to bear everything from the media training [to] the message development. And we have a very good advocacy advertising operation and grassroots. There's a whole arsenal of capabilities that are available to our clients that are not always there in smaller shops or in lobbying operations.

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