10th anniversary: public affairs analysis

Whether targeting the press, lawmakers, or the average Joe, social media has drastically changed the rules of outreach

The core fundamentals of public affairs haven't changed, says Hyde Park Communications CEO Jeff Sandman. Clients need smart, crisp messaging that appeals to the target audiences, whether they're lawmakers, regulators, the media, or the general public.

What has changed are the tactics used for campaigns – something affected greatly by the explosion in social media. Ten years ago, some campaigns still encouraged people to call 900 numbers that would send faxes to members of Congress.

“Now, no one even knows what a telegram is,” Sandman jokes. “The traditional ads in publications like Roll Call, The Hill, and others continue, but are they distinguishable enough that they will sway the day? The answer is no.

“What we've seen that's different,” he adds, “is how one is able to drive grassroots groups to action through social marketing and other online communications.”

Today's news often reaches the public without any initial layer of media interpretation. On 9/11, millions watched the second plane crash into the World Trade Center on live TV. More recently, some of the earliest reports on natural disasters, such as the earthquake in China's Sichuan region or the cyclone in Burma, came not from journalists, but from bloggers and aid groups over Twitter.

The rise of cable media and upstart blogs, along with the constant up-dating of Web sites by traditional publications, has led to a world where communicators need to be on-call 24-7, monitoring a wide range of media sources, some of which have no traditional media background, notes Widmeyer Communications chairman Scott Widmeyer.

“There is never a time to pause,” he says. “You have to be on top of things. We don't want to get behind in putting out our message, so you have to be constantly putting ideas out there. If you talk to people in Congressional offices, they'll tell you things are out of control in terms of the electronic messages that come in.”

But while sometimes overwhelming for Congress, electronic communications is overall a force for good, notes B.R. McConnon, CEO of Democracy Data and Communications. It provides new opportunities for the public to talk with their leaders and creates more transparency about organizations lobbying for
legislation or running public campaigns in favor of certain issues.

“Traditionally, you did a lot of top-down communications in public affairs, but over the past 10 to 15 years, that's been eroding,” he says. “Looking back at key issues like the Clinton healthcare plan, the BTU tax, or telecom deregulation – those issues taught a lot of people that by engaging audiences, customers, and shareholders, you could really turn a tide on that issue.”

Still, the impeachment of Bill Clinton heralded an era of extreme partisanship that has been evident in all sorts of Congressional battles in recent years, from the immigration bill to, most recently, the hair pulling over the financial crisis.

Neal Cohen, CEO of APCO Worldwide's Americas region, says the rising level of partisanship over the past decade means that more lawmakers and supporters fall either on the left or the right, with a narrower band of people more open to influence.

Legislative battles appear to center more on defeating as opposed to passing, with lawmakers getting less done. As a result, important issues such as gay marriage, because they don't get addressed on the federal level, end up being considered through state referendums.

“But states have always been laboratories for democracy, so I don't see that as a change,” Cohen says.

Corporations certainly have become much more active on both the state and federal level in reaching out to the public in support of a policy they favor. More often, they are also banding together in coalitions that include rivals or companies in totally different sectors, notes Johanna Schneider, executive director of external relations for the Business Roundtable.

“No one goes it alone anymore,” she says. “If you want to be successful, it's about partnering with other organizations. The world is too integrated, and individual messages and individual campaigns only take you so far. You really have to harness the power of multiple organizations. That is really the power behind CSR. It opens up organizations to new ideas when they otherwise tend to have blinders on.”

The growing power of databases means political campaigns, advocacy organizations, and trade associations are increasingly able to pinpoint groups of individuals likely to support their causes. This “microtargeting” has led to the popular awareness of demographic groups like “soccer moms” and “NASCAR dads.” But transparency online also helps citizens know more about their political institutions and the groups seeking to influence them.

Overall, thanks to the online environment, the world is connected in so many new ways affecting public affairs. News stories break in India that cause media relations phone lines at company headquarters in New York to start ringing minutes later. Companies that previously went through the motions of creating a Web site that, they hoped, didn't reveal too much about their operations, now know that electronic communications by employees could be posted on a blog for the entire world to see.

Looking back
1999 - Elian Gonzalez
Young Cuban boy is found floating on an inner tube in the Florida Straits; a battle between US and Cuban officials and a media frenzy ensue

2001 - 9/11
Al-Qaeda coordinates attacks on New York City and Washington, transforming the national political agenda in the space of minutes

2003 - Columbia disaster
NASA serves as a crisis comms model after the space shuttle disintegrates

2003 - War in Iraq
US launches its initiative in Iraq, adding hundreds of billions of dollars in costs to an already overstrained
federal budget

2006 - Jack Abramoff scandal
Former lobbyist pleads guilty to fraud, confirming what many cynics expected of Washington's inside dealings

Five influential public affairs departments
AARP
A decade ago, AARP was sometimes the punch line for jokes about hotel discounts and early-bird specials. Today, its large, and relatively young, communications staff craftily leverage the power of a key voting bloc

Department of Defense
The subject of endless lobbying and public affairs campaigns, the DoD has an ever-growing budget and a huge in-house communications organization

NASA
Once the focus of an American public determined to best the Soviet Union in all endeavors, the agency now faces scrutiny over escalating costs and merits of missions. That makes the agency's communications critical

SEIU
Labor unions may not be the backbone of the American workplace anymore, but the Service Employees International Union and other groups engage in cutting-edge (and controversial) outreach around the country

White House
The President and his spokesperson are responsible for setting the national agenda. Often pilloried for withholding relevant information and pushing talking points, the White House communications staff is among the world's most watched PR teams

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