ANALYSIS: Recall race forces rethink in public affairs strategies

As the CA recall saga continues on, public affairs work is heating up as clients push to keep their issues in the spotlight and plan for a change in leadership.

As the CA recall saga continues on, public affairs work is heating up as clients push to keep their issues in the spotlight and plan for a change in leadership.

By now you've likely heard about the California recall election, a carnival of politics that even Hollywood could not have dreamed up. It has made international headlines, dominated the Golden State's media, and is the number-one topic of casual conversation. What you may not have heard about are the political issues - such as worker's compensation, consumer privacy, and gay rights - that used to have the attention of the media, legislators, and voters until the sprint to the governor's mansion took over. Nevertheless, all these issues remain front and center in the state legislature as the recall election moves ever closer. Despite Californian's preoccupation with the upcoming election (or perhaps because of it), public affairs shops are working double time to pull attention back to those types of issues on behalf of their clients. They are also spending time mapping out contingency plans for the dozens of possible outcomes of the recall vote. Sacramento, the state's capital, has become a hotbed not only of TV trucks camped in front of Capital Mall, but also of public affairs specialists trying to prove their worth by brokering both information and influence for clients confused and worried by the political pandemonium. And there is plenty of pandemonium. "When there is turmoil and crisis, public affairs tends to get really active," says Porter Novelli's Sacramento GM Bill Schreiber. "We anticipate some additional work." Adding to the intensity is the fact that California's legislative session ends in mid-September. A new session may mean a new governor (maybe even a Republican governor), leaving some special-interest groups and legislators scrambling to push their agendas to passage before the new leadership takes the helm. Issues and bills that only a few weeks ago were considered dead or unlikely to pass are now in the spotlight as various factions look for ways to exploit the chaos to their own advantage. "There is just no doubt that the legislators themselves are beginning to filter their thinking through the recall ramifications and, consequently, our clients are being affected," says APCO's Sacramento MD and SVP Jose Hermocillo. Legislators and lobbyists, who both fear that a change in leadership could hinder their efforts, are now pushing dozens of bills. Many of these pieces of legislation could have been debated during the next legislative session under normal circumstances. Others also may want to capitalize on Gray Davis' tenuous position by putting bills on his desk that would be politically expedient for him to sign. Fighting to remain in office, Davis is seeking to both highlight accomplishments that could be popular with voters, and avoid moves that could anger them. Davis' spokespeople are quick to say that the governor is only considering the state's best interests with his recent moves. But some public affairs specialists point out that many of the issues he has recently chosen to support are backed by strong constituent groups that could deliver both votes and campaign funds. Fighting to stay popular The value of backing only popular plans in the weeks before the election was forcefully highlighted last week when Arnold Schwarzenegger quickly backed away from comments from his new economic advisor Warren Buffet attacking California's capped property taxes - a sacred cow among many voters. Buffet suggested raising property taxes, and was met with an uproar from voters and a slew of coverage from media. Davis seems to be carefully taking the opposite road by publicly supporting agendas popular with liberal Democratic voters who he hopes to draw to voting booths. That gives some public affairs lobbyists at least the perception of opportunity. "The thinking is that Davis is going to be in a position of signing whatever is in front of him if it benefits him politically," says Schreiber. Some of the most-heavily pushed issues include a Democratic plan to repeal the vehicle license fee, which was recently tripled, and replace the lost $4 billion in revenue with higher income tax for the rich, and taxes on cigarettes and alcohol. Other controversial items backed by Davis include: a bill that would grant gay partners most of the same rights as heterosexual married couples, a law that would allow illegal immigrants to get driver's licenses, and a bill that would prohibit banks and other companies from selling consumers' financial information without consent. In addition to the extra work created by the legislative push, public affairs specialists are also being called upon to advise clients about the 130-plus candidates, and which among them should be taken seriously. Some firms say that many in California's business community are taking a wait-and-see attitude about the race. "The best I can tell, most businesses are not getting involved," says Fleishman-Hillard's Sacramento GM John Segale. "When it comes to our clients and what happens moving forward, nobody knows." But other firms say they are advising clients to reach out to strong candidates to brief them on issues, and possibly even offer support. APCO's Hermocillo says his agency is "being proactive" when it comes to planning for recall outcomes, arranging meetings with candidates. Public affairs experts say that kind of strategic outlook provides both the opportunity and the challenge of proving their worth to clients by being able to provide insider information on the candidates and the recall at a time when clarity seems almost impossible. Long-time political and business players such as Lt. Governor Cruz Bustamante already have connections with many Sacramento public affairs agencies, allowing those firms easier access and a stronger ability to gauge their positions and chances. But for the myriad other candidates without preexisting relationships, the ability to stay on top of the political circus is a difficult job. Ogilvy PR Worldwide's Sacramento GM Robert Deen says that could get even tougher once the recall is over. He says that any change in leadership is likely to stall many accounts as clients reassess what the new political landscape means to their agendas. "It kind of froze stuff," recalls Deen of the last change in governors. "I think everybody is going to have a period of figuring out where we stand" if a new governor is elected. The only story in town Public affairs firms are also faced with a difficult media environment as the election approaches. The recall is virtually the only story in town, making it tough to gain coverage for other issues. Some firms are even advising clients to postpone events and campaigns until after the vote. "Who wants to talk about elder abuse or transportation issues when there is all this other stuff out there?" asks Deen. "It's very hard to get anyone's attention for anything else. I don't think anybody in their right mind would be launching a campaign in the next month or so." Despite the chaos, it is undeniably an interesting time for public affairs in California. No matter what the outcome, the summer of the recall is likely to be remembered as one of the most engaging episodes for public affairs in the state. "It's kind of fun up here, because in the public affairs business you always look for the unique or unusual situation that you and your client can benefit from," says Schreiber. "There are a lot of angles and permutations left in this that we haven't seen yet."

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