THE AGENCY BUSINESS: Public affairs must hit on GOP targets for Bush's second term

As the President prepares for the next four years, public affairs agencies must recruit staff for key areas like healthcare and tax policy, and utilize conservative media outlets and blogs.

As the President prepares for the next four years, public affairs agencies must recruit staff for key areas like healthcare and tax policy, and utilize conservative media outlets and blogs.

Public affairs firms hoping to pick up business in the second Bush term need to be searching for talent in areas such as tax policy, social security, energy policy, and healthcare, all key target areas for the new administration. More important, say some public affairs veterans, firms must sharpen their ability to reach key audiences and legislators through increasingly influential conservative media outlets and through the growing online world of conservative blogs and websites. "The way to victory on these issues is to lobby the media, as well as lobby Congress," says Keith Appell, SVP with Creative Response Concepts, a Virginia-based conservative public affairs firm. "There are opportunities for firms with the right people." Appell's firm was one of the key players, along with conservative blogs and news sites, in debunking a CBS report that it had documents showing President Bush received preferential treatment during his National Guard service. His agency also worked with the veterans group that attacked John Kerry's Vietnam War record, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Public affairs shops need to gear up quickly now staff-wise for what likely will be a fast start to the President's second term in January, Appell advises. "I think they won't waste any time. The President has a substantial amount of political capital, and I do not believe he will sit on it," he says. Much of corporate America still doesn't have a firm grasp on the new media universe, notes Craig Shirley, president of Shirley & Banister Public Affairs, a Virginia-based firm. Public affairs shops that can show corporate clients how to use new media to reach key conservative lawmakers should prosper in the next Bush term, he feels. "Conservative Republicans read The Washington Times first; they read The Weekly Standard," Shirley explains. Firms that can only get their clients' points of view in The New York Times will be missing this key audience. Conservative talk radio is another key outlet many traditional public affairs firms have ignored in the past, he adds. "Go to the right-of-center media," he advises. Shirley also sees the President moving quickly on several fronts, including energy policy. "What they understand is second terms can lose momentum very quickly unless the political capital they have is spent quickly," he says. The need to be ready for a flood of new presidential proposals - likely to be articulated in Bush's January State of the Union address - will lead traditionally Democratic public affairs firms to seek out alliances with Republican firms so they can reach key members of the GOP, Shirley says. His firm has been approached several times in the last two years about such alliances. But those at more liberal public affairs firms don't expect to rush into the market looking for new talent that can talk only to the conservative right. "Any firm that's effectively representing its clients will reach out to as diverse a media list as possible," contends Joe Clayton, president of Widmeyer Communications in Washington, DC. Rather than seeking staff with a particular ideological bent, Clayton advises hiring people who understand the changing media, particularly the online world and the growing influence of blogs. "The notion of a website as a tool to provide information is a dated way to think of a website," he says. Clayton anticipates staffing up at his firm in the first quarter of next year as a flood of new proposals comes from the administration. His agency has done work in homeland security and education reform, two areas he expects to remain in the spotlight next year. Rick Jasculca, whose Democratic roots go back to work he did in the Carter administration, also sees Democratic-leaning firms gaining business in the President's second term without having to link with more conservative firms. Jasculca's Chicago-based firm, Jasculca/Terman & Associates, has been handling event planning for the opening of the Bill Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock, AR. Jasculca is chairman and CEO of the firm. "It's clear that the political landscape is evolving, and no matter where you are in the public affairs arena, it's important to understand the political landscape and understand how you have to reach people," he says. "It's less a staffing issue and more a strategy issue. We always make a key commitment to finding top-notch public affairs specialists, but I don't think we have any litmus test." The challenge for public affairs firms in the second term will be finding common ground for clients who might not politically agree with the Bush team, Jasculca says. "If you want to succeed on an issue, you have to find ways to forge coalitions," he says. "We try to find a way to bridge gaps." Public affairs tips in second Bush term
  • Find staffers who can reach conservative media outlets
  • Hire staffers who understand the evolving world of blogs
  • Find experts in tax policy, energy, social security, and healthcare
  • Look for staffers adept at coalition building

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