10th anniversary: public affairs roundtable

Ted McKenna held a virtual roundtable in September that discussed the with public affairs experts the trends that are affecting the industry

Joe Baerlein, president, Rasky Baerlein Strategic Communications

Clayton Boyce, VP of public affairs, American Trucking Associations

Sean Crowley, marketing-communications director, Environmental Defense Fund

Brendan Hurley, SVP of marketing and communications, Goodwill of Greater Washington

David Laufer, principal and founding partner, Forum Strategies and Communications

Stephen Manfredi, associate director, White House Office of Strategic Initiatives

Jeff Mascott, managing director, Adfero Group

Lance Morgan, chief communications strategist, Powell Tate

Ted McKenna (PRWeek)
: An obvious development is new media. Could anyone provide an interesting example or specifics about how new media has changed your work in public affairs (or in your organization or with your clients).

Brendan Hurley (Goodwill of Greater Washington): The environment has changed dramatically. You can no longer speak to your constituents. In order to be effective, you now have to speak with your constituents and.develop a two-way dialogue. Engage them on their terms, not your own. Social media allows you the forum to do that.

Jeff Mascott (Adfero Group): One could make the case that communications has changed more in the last 10 years than in the 500 years that preceded it. The introduction of the Internet has radically changed the way we communicate with one another and the way we consume information. As a result, the way we conduct public affairs campaigns is transforming.

Sean Crowley (Environmental Defense Fund): During our work on the congestion pricing issue in NYC, the blogs played a key role in driving the issue.

Stephen Manfredi (White House Office of Strategic Initiatives): We've witnessed two opposing trends in the last 10 years—the consolidation of traditional media outlets and the proliferation of new media, the Internet, blogs, social-networking sites, user-generated content, and specialty publications. In a few short years, Matt Drudge, a guy with no reporters and a Web site, has arguably become the nation's assignment editor. That speaks volumes about the shifting balance of power within media and the great implication for those working in public affairs.

Joe Baerlein (Rasky Baerlein): In our ballot campaigns, the ability to target persuadable voters using new media is much more efficient and less costly than traditional media. That's one change in the last 10 years.

David Laufer (Forum Strategies and Communications): I agree that it's become more about conversation and dialogue than "message delivery and advocacy." The premium is also now on creating information and resources of value to constituents.

Lance Morgan (Powell Tate): The new media has also expanded and accelerated communications between individuals and decisionmakers and opinion leaders and required a hair-trigger response on the part of all of us who manage public affairs campaigns.

Clayton Boyce (American Trucking Association): ATA has been using YouTube and blogging for several issues. Both are new opportunities but have their own dangers. On YouTube, our truck safety videos play, and at the end four random video selections are offered, and one is bound to be a video of a truck wreck.

Hurley (Goodwill of Greater Washington): Public affairs and communications has become more of a global effort than ever before. No matter what you might want to say locally, within minutes it is now communicated across the globe. You must be more careful than ever at what you say and how you say it.

Baerlein (Rasky Baerlein): Matt Drudge and the other "reporters" have given traditional journalists a "pass" in deciding what's news and what's borderline fiction.

McKenna (PRWeek): Does new media make your jobs harder? Or more complex? Joe was saying ballot initiative work can be more efficient and less costly. I like Clayton's point, too, about the dangers of YouTube.

Crowley (Environmental Defense Fund): At my old firm, we built a grassroots campaign from scratch via the Internet to organize thousands of defrauded investors to help pass the Sarbanes-Oxley accounting reform law within seven weeks, despite a presidential veto threat.

Mascott (Adfero Group): Recently we conducted a "virtual march" on Washington for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce where individuals could create an avatar of themselves and place themselves on a Google map of the Mall in Washington. As a result of WOM tens of thousands participated in two weeks time.

Hurley (Goodwill of Greater Washington): I agree that messaging must have valuable content for the user. But we can't be promotional in nature without a direct benefit to the message recipient.

Morgan (Powell Tate): And recognize that what others are saying is instantaneously transmitted to everyone. A story or complaint that previously might have taken weeks to circulate now may take minutes.

Laufer (Forum Strategies and Communications): The need for speed and agility make it both harder, and easier. In a way, there are many more outlets to express a POV given a decent news hooks, and news hooks are being generated all the time in the 24/7 news cycle.

Baerlein (Rasky Baerlein): I don't think it's harder Ted---but there is a different set of challenges to make sure it's in the mix of other services you're providing to solve business problems for clients

Boyce (American Trucking Association): The problem with blogging is that you write, but you also have to monitor hundreds of sites that blog about our issues. The worst are the newspaper and TV station sites that urge readers and viewers to immediately blog about (they call it “discuss”) the story they've just read or seen. The conversation tends not to be very highbrow.

Hurley (Goodwill of Greater Washington): On the upside, it gives you a forum more powerful than ever before to engage your constituents, educate them, and learn from them. Even complaints and misunderstandings can be more quickly addressed and on a much broader scale then 10 years ago.

McKenna (PRWeek): What does that mean if complaints and rumors spread in minutes? You have to do more monitoring? Worker harder? To me, the traditional outlets still seem to drive most of the news cycles.

Manfredi (White House Office of Strategic Initiatives): This is an important issue--it's democratic decisionmaking versus knowledge and considered thought.

Mascott (Adfero Group): In the past the Internet was thought of as another tool in the arsenal to reach more eyeballs. But as some have mentioned, social media has changed the expectations citizens have in actually participating in the process. They have to be included at every state of the campaign.

Hurley (Goodwill of Greater Washington): Crisis communications is a critical element of any business model now. It must be a key ingredient in communications strategies for small or large organizations.

Morgan (Powell Tate): One other element that has changed, and is related, is that the 24/7 news cycle and the intense competition in mainstream and new media means that virtually everything is a "story" -- whether true or not, complete or not, accurate or not. There is a lot of information out there, but not necessarily a lot of facts.

Boyce (American Trucking Association): In monitoring blogs and discussion groups, I repeatedly see just plain folks (or maybe not) take a negative story and start hyperbolizing. When that stuff gets picked up by other outlets, then it really gets viral.

Baerlein (Rasky Baerlein): We had a client recently where a TV station aired false and misleading news about them. We corrected that on the station Web site and on the air but spent two days trying to get it corrected on the Internet.

Crowley (Environmental Defense Fund): Haste makes waste, but if you're late to the party, it will be over!

Laufer (Forum Strategies and Communications): That has created an opportunity for companies to take advantage of, in identifying and creating meaningful on-line resources (eg: newsrooms) for reporters, and others, to go to (pull, not push) information they find of value. The better (more balanced) the infomation, the more they'll come back.

Morgan (Powell Tate): The one thing that hasn't changed, I think, is the need for solid, creative, and smart messaging. The words still matter, perhaps even more now with all the clutter in the marketplace.

Hurley (Goodwill of Greater Washington): We recently had a story appear on MSNBC.com and many of the comments were completely inaccurate due to a lack of understanding of Goodwill's mission. We spent two days trying to combat the misunderstandings, but that is the danger of new media. Once it's out there, it's out there.

McKenna (PRWeek): OK so there's a lot to deal with re: new media. How else would you say public affairs has changed over the past decade?

Mascott (Adfero Group): More and more information is now public and easily available. You have to be transparent.

Manfredi (White House Office of Strategic Initiatives): It's related to new media and technology--but time horizons are becoming shorter. The ongoing financial crisis demonstrates how quickly news and information (as well as rumors and misinformation) can travel and the necessity for decision makers at all types of organizations, from corporations to government, to have a communications process in place to manage rapid change. Communicators involved in the recent problems on Wall Street are not waiting for Monday to get out their message. They're utilizing weekends to play catchup and prepare stakeholders for the week ahead.

McKenna (PRWeek): Transparent in what way, Jeff?

Mascott (Adfero Group): When you engage the social media domain - blogs, networks, etc. – it's crucial to be up front about who you are and who you represent.

Hurley (Goodwill of Greater Washington): I'd say in the past 10 years the media has become more biased than ever before. It can be tough to get a clear message delivered when the reporter may have a set agenda before the first question is ever even asked.

Baerlein (Rasky Baerlein): Here is my list: Shrinking news cycles, term limits on elected officials, turnover at major media like the Boston Globe, and evolution of our job with clients to be more problem solvers for them

McKenna (PRWeek): How do term limits affect public affairs, Joe? You lose out on established connections?

Baerlein (Rasky Baerlein): Yes, if elected [officials] are gone after 4-6 years, there is little time to build relationships and trust and they are looking to run for the next office from the time they get elected

Morgan (Powell Tate): I think the definition [of public affairs] has expanded, in large part because of the explosion of media, new and mainstream. A personal matter involving a corporate leader would have been less likely to be considered a public affairs matter 10 years ago. Now, the matter could affect not just the company's reputation, but its legislative interests in Congress and state capitals. Everything is now fair game in public affairs.

Baerlein (Rasky Baerlein): Strategy and tactics I used to do in running political candidate campaigns is right on point for many of the corporate work we now do

Laufer (Forum Strategies and Communications): Another one is the persistence of CSR, or the "sustainability of Sustainability." 10 years ago it could have been a fad. Now it is ingrained and has been driving a shift toward greater transparency (of operations and decisionmaking) and stakeholder involvement and has generated ways in which public affairs and brand communications now go far beyond "cause marketing."

McKenna (PRWeek): Oh, good points, David and Joe. Corporations are much more into public affairs work, for environmental reasons, CSR, etc.? Correct?

Laufer (Forum Strategies and Communications): Micro-targeting and segmentation is another...it's SOP in most campaigns now.

Baerlein (Rasky Baerlein): Public corporations want and need a return on any civic and charitable dollars they are spending.

Crowley (Environmental Defense Fund): Greenwashing is a huge problem.

McKenna (PRWeek): I'm sort of surprised about the negative way you discuss reporters? Is it both print and TV that seem biased?

Mascott (Adfero Group): One of the reasons for reporters being so rushed is that they have more demands than they had in the past. Not only do they write articles for print but also blog, appear in video, and now some even use Twitter.

Hurley (Goodwill of Greater Washington): I agree with Joe. It is no longer "giving." Any philanthropic effort is a marketing strategy and the company is seeking a measurable ROI.

Mascott (Adfero Group): There are still lots of good reporters out there. But there's more of an incentive than ever before to become a celebrity yourself and inject yourself into the news.

Baerlein (Rasky Baerlein): There are very few serious reporters left on TV and those who are left are on once a week

Crowley (Environmental Defense Fund): I hate to say it as a former TV reporter, but TV and radio reporters tend to be more sloppy because their deadlines are shorter.

Boyce (American Trucking Association): I used Fleishman-Hillard to launch an environmental sustainability campaign. It was not a strategy, though. Our members created the program and pushed it forward.

McKenna (PRWeek): Yes, can we expand on greenwashing -- Sean or others? Every company goes on about caring about the environment. Does it matter if it's genuine or not?

Laufer (Forum Strategies and Communications): I agree there is lots of greenwashing. However, if you look at Wal-Mart's (and Nike and Starbucks and Gap) supply chain efforts, it's for real...and has measurable impacts on bottom line.

Hurley (Goodwill of Greater Washington): If the company's efforts improve the environment, which is the ultimate goal, does it matter what their motives are? It really becomes a question of sustainability.

Boyce (American Trucking Association): Wal-Mart was a major impetus to our sustainability program. They are for real. But of course environmental programs tend to lower operating costs because fuel consumption decreases.

Crowley (Environmental Defense Fund): We work cooperatively with major market leaders such as Wal-Mart to help them green their products, but we don't accept money from them. However, plenty of companies have no outside validation of their green efforts and that hurts the companies that do.

Laufer (Forum Strategies and Communications): But more and more do. It was recently reported that Fair Trade-certified product introductions grew from 17 in 2003 to 284 YTD.

Boyce (American Trucking Association): Environmental groups are very active and savvy, and any company that tries greenwashing these days will get reamed on the Web and in the press.

Hurley (Goodwill of Greater Washington): Certainly there must be some level of oversight and accountability. You can't call yourself a green company and only live it on paper.

Mascott (Adfero Group): The fact is organizations will not make changes with regard to the environment until there is a strong business case to be made, like better recruiting or more sales/loyalty from the consumer. Only when they see a real ROI will they change in ways that will be accepted by the public as real and not just a PR stunt.

Crowley (Environmental Defense Fund): We've found that when companies see the long term payoff of investing in sustainability, it's an easy sell.

McKenna (PRWeek): OK, so it's sort of like the transparency issue. People can see through phony CSR plans. Looking at another issue mentioned previously, microtargeting seems very important as well, as the use of research prior to and during launch of campaign. This is all related to the growing sophistication of databases. Does this make public affairs more effective, more complicated, more expensive? How has it affected you all?

Baerlein (Rasky Baerlein): Good quantitative and qualitative research saves you money in the long run and makes any paid media spending much more efficient.

Boyce (American Trucking Association): For our sustainability campaign, we conducted pre-polling, mid-campaign focus groups, and will do post-polling. It's expensive but necessary.

McKenna (PRWeek): Database chopping certainly seems big with the presidential campaigns.

Morgan (Powell Tate): All of the above. More effective because you can gather your supporters; more complicated because so can the other side of a public affairs issue; and more expensive because you never run out of targets. But to have a winning campaign, you need a macro outcome and to stitch together the coalition needed to win. That hasn't changed.

Laufer (Forum Strategies and Communications): More complicated and more expensive in the short term, but more effective, and possibly cheaper overall in the longer term when it comes to cost per actual results (vote, or call/letter, etc)

Hurley (Goodwill of Greater Washington): Microtargeting is great if you are strong with positioning your message. However, your overall message must remain consistent, which is where many campaigns fail.

Baerlein (Rasky Baerlein): It still comes down to devising the right strategy for a client. If the strategy is wrong, all the money in the world can't help you.

Crowley (Environmental Defense Fund): I agree, just like in a political campaign, if your message isn't consistent, you hurt your branding.

Laufer (Forum Strategies and Communications): Also, better segmentation allows better targeting of your internet messages. It's not all about just putting a big site out and getting people to it. It's finding where those people are going on the internet and getting your message to them there ... fishing where the fish are.

Manfredi (White House Office of Strategic Initiatives): I think Joseph is right on strategy being most important. There's a growing realization that communications is not a peripheral function. It is better understood today that communications is essential to organizational success and profitability. Public relations executives are becoming increasingly important to strategic decision making and not just "spin" and media.

McKenna (PRWeek): OK, so I should wrap this up fairly soon, though I know there's a lot to talk about. Tell me what other big trends have been in PA over the past decade that we've overlooked so far.

Boyce (American Trucking Association): Managing coalitions is difficult. Sometimes the staff leader of the coalition will issue information without clearing with all members, so you have to have the ground rules and issues very well marked out.

Baerlein (Rasky Baerlein): I see corporations doing a better job of integrating their PR and public affairs staffs to work on public issues. That used to be foreign travel 10 years ago.

Manfredi (White House Office of Strategic Initiatives): I think public affairs professionals are being looked upon for leadership more and more. There's a growing realization that communications is not a peripheral function, and that communications is essential to organizational success and profitability. Public relations leaders are playing bigger roles in strategic decision making. And that's a good thing.

Mascott (Adfero Group): Strategy in public affairs is moving away from one-way messaging toward multi-layered conversations.

McKenna (PRWeek): Meaning, there's more feedback from audiences?

Mascott (Adfero Group): That's right. Smart consumer campaigns involve consumers at every stage from the creation of the product to the marketing of the product as well as the consumption. The same principles apply to public affairs campaigns - citizens need to be included in the messaging as well as the marketing and not simply the action.

Crowley (Environmental Defense Fund): I think simplifying language is more important than ever because reporters don't stay on their beats very long and so they don't know subject matter well.

Hurley (Goodwill of Greater Washington): Media fragmentation. So many ways to reach diverse audiences. Integrating messages and campaigns is more critical than ever before. One or two forms of media simply aren't enough. Also understanding that public affairs and communications is no longer limited to a small public affairs team. It must be adopted by an entire organization as part of brand messaging.

Morgan (Powell Tate): I think Joe's point is very important. Communications is no longer an outlier in the C-suite. The people in change have become key players in most companies.

Laufer (Forum Strategies and Communications): Social media has really allowed activists to identify and recruit other activists more organically than ever before. Political activation is becoming less centered around a single organizer. That creates both challenges and opportunities.

Baerlein (Rasky Baerlein): One last point. Corporations are viewing the initiative and referendum process as an ally for their efforts when legislatures go the other way on business issues. Ten years ago, it was the public interest groups using the ballot to advance their agendas.

Boyce (American Trucking Association): "Multi-layered conversations" is right, but that puts a tremendous strain on your operation. And association and corporate PR shops have been downsized too.

Laufer (Forum Strategies and Communications): Corporations have always spent to defeat initiatives and referendums. Now maybe they're more active in using the process to pass stuff.

Hurley (Goodwill of Greater Washington): Research, research, research...engagement, engagement, engagement.

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