Public Affairs Roundtable: Stimulating conversation

Keith O'Brien and Ted McKenna were in Washington, DC to discuss public affairs

This year, PRWeek will visit eight cities where an industry close to that respective region will be discussed. For each event, leading PR pros from a variety of firms, companies, and other organizations will gather in a roundtable discussion about the issues affecting them and their peers. Keith O'Brien and Ted McKenna were in Washington, DC to discuss public affairs 

Allison Barber, Deputy assistant secretary of Defense for internal communications and public liaison, Department of Defense

Martha Boudreau, EVP and DC GM, Fleishman-Hillard

Jeff Carter, director of public affairs, US Marshals

Suzy DeFrancis, chief public affairs officer, American Red Cross

Neil Dhillon, DC MD and head of national PA practice, MS&L

Laura Gross, president, Scott Circle Communications

Mark Kitchens, SVP of communications, AARP

Rob Mathias, MD, Ogilvy 

Michael McGarry, EVP of public affairs, AdvaMed 

Michael Petruzzello, managing partner, Qorvis

Robert Pflieger, SVP of public affairs, National Association of Home Builders

Dan Solomon, CEO, Virilion

Financial repercussions
Keith O'Brien (PRWeek):
Everyone is talking about the financial situation and how it's centered on DC. How does it affect your organization and your clients and how does it impact your ability to talk about the things that in a quieter market you'd be able to talk to the media about?

Mark Kitchens (AARP): I think what we've been seeing is there was a fundamental mistake in the way the message was communicated. Because of that, our 40 million members reacted very negatively to the bailout. They didn't understand how it would impact them. Because the message was that it would be a bailout of Wall Street, and not a rescue of Main Street, wasn't getting through. I think it is now. Our call centers, e-mail contacts have just been overflowing.

Ted McKenna (PRWeek): It was a mistake in messaging by the administration?

Kitchens (AARP): I'm not going to point fingers, but in general I think there was a mistake on both sides, if you look at just the way it was talked about. Too much talk about Wall Street and not how this was going to affect John and Jane Doe in Aardvark, OK, or you name it.

Rob Mathias (Ogilvy PR): We're so busy trying to solve this problem that we forgot about the importance of the message. So they just started to refer to this as a “bailout” and by the time anyone thought to correct it, it was way too late. You're seeing an interesting, significant example of the importance of telling a story, that words do matter in a critical matter of public policy. Last week we were voting on a bailout and this week we're voting on a rescue package – they're essentially the same bill.

Michael Petruzzello (Qorvis Communications): What doesn't help is that you have a late-term administration that doesn't have the influence it did in the first term. You have a president with historic low ratings, so he's been more of a commenter on this than an active leader. Then you combine that with a highly contentious election year.

Robert Pflieger (National Association of Home Builders): Our organization is at ground zero: We have the whole housing segment to contend with. I've been dealing with this day in and day out over the last three years. There was not the normal army of advocates out there that you would normally see fielded on any major legislative push or any major issue of this import. On any other issue you would have see every major business leader talking about how this dovetails with Wall Street right to Main Street; I didn't see any of that.

Suzy DeFrancis (American Red Cross): I think the terminology was so far over our heads, terms like “illiquid assets,” and that was part of the problem. Certainly from the viewpoint of a nonprofit charity organization like us, it's posed two problems. One is the fundraising problem. It creates a climate where it's really hard to go ask people for money when they're worried about their 401(k)s. It's probably the toughest environment for that type of “ask” that we've seen ever. And when you're in the disaster business, as we are, this is hitting just as we're in the major hurricane season and then we have the economic storm. Usually when the hurricane hits, there are lots of images of people out of their homes and suffering and that helps bring in fundraising for a charity like the Red Cross.

Michael McGarry (AdvaMed): We represent companies that manufacture 90% of the medical technology used in the US, and before all this we were out communicating a lot about our priorities around healthcare reform. Now we've suddenly had to go back and say, “Given this financial crisis, what are we realistically going to be able to do?” So we've gone back on our messaging on healthcare reform, are waiting to see who is elected to do an assessment on how are we going to go from a broad platform on healthcare reform to a rifle shot based on what is likely to happen next year, given the fiscal situation and who's elected.

McKenna (PRWeek): What effect will this issue have on all the budget issues to be considered next year under the new Congress?

Neil Dhillon (MS&L): Every industry is going to get cut. Transportation, energy, healthcare – all of these industries are going to take a hit. How Congress [is] going to deal with that is the question. The ability to do a comprehensive public affairs program, which would include lobbying, will need more outreach to get more buy-in. It's going to be a very difficult year.

Dan Solomon (Virilion): The enduring communications lesson is that the communicators were not at the problem-solving table. For almost every industry, because of the complexity of the economy, the public has to be engaged.

Jeff Carter (US Marshals): It almost seemed like there was a focus on Congress exclusively without realizing the constituency. That's the rudder; that's what steers this ships. If you don't have those constituencies on board, they're going to let you know how they feel, unless you frame it from the outset. We went through this same type of issue with the Dubai Port World when I was with the Coast Guard. It just was not framed accurately from the beginning and we were playing catch-up the entire time.

Solomon (Virilion): That's another great example where communications were not part of the problem-solving mix; it was developed after the solution was identified.

O'Brien (PRWeek): This exists with Dubai Ports, this exists in corporate America: How many times do leaders need to realize there is a litany of failed communications exercises that severely impacted the end goal? When will the communications industry say, “Enough is enough, bring us in earlier.”


Laura Gross (Scott Circle Communications): It just depends on the organization and the leadership, whether it's on the Hill or in nonprofits. What I always ask of clients, even in the interview process, is how important is communications at your organization? Are you respected at your organization? Are you brought to the table with the CEO? I think that makes a big difference. It seems like people in Washington are catching on. I honestly think this was a fluke and it happened so quickly and people had to react so quickly. You didn't have all of the public affairs groups ready to go; you didn't have the lobbyists ready to go, the special interests ready to go. I just think no one was ready to act quickly, which is amazing in a city of communicators – you always have to be ready to act quickly.

O'Brien (PRWeek): What sort of tactics would you have down if you controlled the communications for the rollout of this package?

Carter (US Marshals): Words matter, I think that's obvious. Whether you call it a bailout or a rescue, that affects someone's perception. Without having that communications up front, the wrong word is used. Members start getting calls from constituents saying, “We don't want a bailout.”

Pflieger (NAHB): I agree, this is the story, this isn't about Wall Street, it's about Main Street. Fundamentally it's about convincing Main Street that it's your ability to buy a car or a house or finance a washer-dryer, or the ability of your municipality to pave a street, to fill your pot hole, or your drycleaner to stay in business. You have to clearly draw the picture that it affects you every day the minute you walk out the door, not this faceless, greedy street in New York. Then once you draw this picture, you roll it out very quickly and get the people who can tell this story.

McGarry (AdvaMed): They've been working on that and saying this isn't a bailout, but what's going on is that the public is saying, “OK it's helping me out, but what got me in this position to begin with?” They see e-mail from bankers two years ago saying, “Let's hope we're rich before this whole house of cards falls.” It's hard for them not to see it as a bailout of Wall Street. They do make the connection that if they don't do this, the economy will go into turmoil.

Martha Boudreau (Fleishman-Hillard):
It seems they have yet to make the connection, other than switching the terminology. The news media are the ones that have gone on and on. Suze Orman is talking really specifically and answering really in-the-weeds question about people's personal finance. Over the last couple of weeks, there's been this massive education going on about …what's happening with Wall Street and these illiquid assets and what's happening with my mutual fund. It just goes to show the financial services industry should do a massive education program going forward because the confusion is driven by fear, which makes people act irrationally, and that sort of [has a] cascading effect.

Petruzzello (Qorvis): Another interesting thing is that 10 days before the election a lot of us are going to get [our] 401(K) statements. Everyone is going to be open that up, and it will be a negative …for every one of us. Maybe they'll have call them 201(K)s now.

McKenna (PRWeek): Does anyone have a sense of whether this energizes voters, or gets them more interested in the campaigns?


Solomon (Virilion): I think this will erode the long-term confidence in any executive official. It may get people to go vote, but I wonder what happens later.

Pflieger (NAHB): What worries me more is [regardless of whether the package passes] you've got now a little over a year's worth of [negative media coverage], with good reason, just a continual pounding to consumers of negative news. Today it's unemployment. The consumers are the engine to this economy with their spending. We see it in our industry; we're 10% of the GDP. We need consumers out there buying homes, which then has a trickle-down effect on the economy. People are terrified, if not downright depressed, because of what they read in the newspapers or see on TV.

Boudreau (Fleishman): The personal relevance factor on this is off the charts. There are a lot of crises where people are concerned or upset. But with this one, you look at your statement and you're 60-plus years old, and go, “Well, there goes retirement for a while.” It's not like in two statements from now, you'll say, “Ok, now we can retire in two years.” This is fundamentally changing people's lives.

O'Brien (PRWeek): The presidential campaign has been going on for, what, 16 years by now? Combine that with the concern that newspapers are cutting staff. Have the people been out there to cover the things that matter to your organizations or clients that don't have to do with the election?

Gross (Scott Circle): It's hard. I was working for a healthcare client, and papers just don't have healthcare reporters anymore. Some do, but not all. Right now with the election in Washington, I had a client who's a good topic for the Style section of the Post, but all those reporters are being taken off to cover the election or the financial crisis.

Pflieger (NAHB): There isn't a week that goes by that we don't get an e-mail about a beat reporter who's been downsized or taking a buyout. For us, this is a reporter that's been on the job a long time and has a lot of institutional knowledge. They're gone and most of the time the paper won't fill that position. Or if they do, they'll use the wire services, and there's no local angle, and one of the things about our industry is that it's almost entirely local. We [now] spend a lot of time trying to educate those rookie reporters who now cover not only real estate, but healthcare, features, other things. So their attention on real estate is now one-fifteenth.

Kitchens (AARP): The trick is to connect with your audience. You've got to play in the news cycle and adjust your message. You have to adapt your messages and connect to the news cycle. If you don't do that, you're not going to get any coverage.  

DeFrancis (ARC): The election has sucked all the air out of coverage, but we had one happy coincidence. Because Hurricane Gustav hit right at the time the National Republican Convention was starting, we had the very fortuitous convergence of candidates saying, ‘We want to do something good for people.” So at the Republican convention they had the delegates calling supporters, and Obama [also] had a message out to supporters to help the effort. And that day we had our first million-dollar online day. I have to say, I'm learning a lot from these campaigns. They're doing a lot in terms of their online outreach. They're breaking new barriers in terms of how you engage people and bring them into the fold.

Solomon (Virilion): I think the campaigns have elevated the desire for people to get information. The audiences are more engaged; the traditional gatekeepers are not as influential. My concern is after the campaign is done, and the country still has deal with important issues, will they still be as engaged? Maybe the whole economy will keep people engaged, but we've seen drop-offs before, whether it's with issues like healthcare, education, the environment, energy, or anything. Sometimes we've struggled to get the public involved, which is the complete opposite of right now.  

McKenna (PRWeek): Do the campaigns represent the cutting edge in outreach?

Solomon (Virilion):
Sure, because they have a distinctive challenge that nobody else has: They have such a massive number of people to reach in a limited time. So there are things we can learn from them, but none of us can replicate.

DeFrancis (ARC): We all wish we had the budgets to just produce ads and show them twice.

Solomon (Virilion): I remember after Howard Dean's race, people would call and say, “We want to be just like Dean.” Well, if you have the budget. They thought it was just one guy in a back room.

O'Brien (PRWeek): The Internet allows such a” nichification” of information. Are there emerging blogs covering the exact sort of thing you wish there were still reporters at newspapers covering.?


Barber (DOD): At the Department of Defense, the best-of-the-best reporters [are those] that work in our corridors. Second to none. What you find is because they've worked the beat at the Pentagon, that they can put things into context in thoughtful ways for the reader that sometimes the blogs [leave out]. We started the new media department at the DoD a year ago because that medium is important. But I do think reporters who have covered the Pentagon for the last 10 years just have a depth that you miss when they walk away.

Carter (US Marshals): Anyone can take a soapbox and stand in a courtyard and yell at the top of their lungs, but that doesn't necessarily make them a reporter or a journalist. Sometimes that just makes them a nuisance. But you have to figure out how to engage with that blogger, because eventually they may have an impact on somebody who really matters. For me, I feel like I'm still the guy delivering milk from horse and buggy and resisting the Model T. But when it makes sense for US Marshals to reach those audiences through social media, I'm all for it. I'm just not sure we're there yet.

Pflieger (NAHB): This has been sort of a pet peeve of mine. It's less blogs as a communications vehicle for communicators to utilize [ than it is] it's reporters who use their blogs as a more informal way of reporting. They report, they have their rules of reporting, but then they use the blogs to report [in a more opinionated way], and then they fall back on “It's just my opinion.” As far as I'm concerned, if your network is paying for it, you have to abide by the same rules as if you're reporting. It's a real gray area. We've gotten in a number of discussions with quite a few reporters where we didn't necessarily agree with their opinion on their blogs as to the way they characterize our positions on some issues.

Mathias (Ogilvy): Which hat are they wearing when we pitch them? Are we pitching the print edition, the online edition, or the blog?  Because each pitch will be different. With reporters who are blogging, we've had a lot of success getting them to link back to us. So there are pluses and minuses to it. But some of the freedom you find in the blog can be turned to our advantage in terms of getting more of our story correctly out there.

Gross (Scott Circle): I don't think the newsrooms really know how to deal with it either. Sometimes these reporters seem overwhelmed by all the stories that are going on. I think they're all confused too. The Post doesn't know how to combine its print and online departments. It's just going to take more time on both our parts.

O'Brien (PRWeek): Do all your organizations or clients want to know what's being said about them online?

DeFrancis (ARC): We monitor it every day. One thing reporters sure seem to love to cover is the problem of blood supplies. I don't know that there's ever a point where you don't get your feedback on how you do your job. You'll get on the wrong end of something where they all gang up. It's like a daily tracking for us on public opinion of the Red Cross.

McGarry (AdvaMed): We do that too, monitoring the blogs. The challenge is deciding on which  blogs to respond to. Sometimes if you don't, a reporter runs a story based on what that blogger wrote. One thing I like about the blogs is that as a communications person you can take another bite of the apple. We just recently had a very bad story in the Wall Street Journal about a member company. We sent a letter to the editor signed by the CEO of the association. I said, “They're not going to run that,” and they didn't, but then we put it on our blog.

Digital Media
McKenna (PRWeek)
: Is SEO important for clients?

Solomon (Virilion): Yes, and it's a great way of measurement. You can see progress of how far up it goes. It's a cumulative effect from what we do every day.

Boudreau (Fleishman): SEO is everything. We spend an immense amount of time on it with our clients, and it never stops. Everything you put on there, everything has to be optimized. You're analyzing all the time where you are on the rankings and where you want to be and how you populate the site, and how you make up for it in pay-for-play clicks. Not only is it important in terms of monitoring blogs and analysis, but also for looking at the traffic on the Web site, what people look at and where they go. That becomes a navigational guide for how to populate the site.  

McGarry (AdvaMed): It's also great, too, in you can also track where the people came, from Google, from Yahoo, and which search terms matter.  

Boudreau (Fleishman: Clients always say, “I want to be in the top 10 on Google.” But it's got to be authentic. The terminology that's used, knowing what you're audience is looking for. Clients say, “We think the number one thing people search for is this,” but often that's not how people are going to search. It's bringing some reality to how understanding people search versus how organizations talk about themselves and their issues.

Carter (US Marshals): You have to take into account the reach of that blog. If it has a daily hit of 300, you have to take into account what the impact [is].


McKenna (PRWeek): Is there some truth about personal contact as opposed to online contact? Do political public affairs campaigns always require person-to-person contact?

Mathias (Ogilvy): I do think the Obama campaign will be studied as a model no matter what happens. You look at the true success of that campaign has had in a Web 2.0 environment, really leading that, but also, [with campaign manager] David Axelrod, these guys are community organizers: Feet on the street, get out the vote campaign. What you see in the Obama campaign, and the McCain campaign, it's this dual effort. You see a lot of people canvassing, going door to door in battleground starts, making sure people register. Some of these are hard-to-reach audiences; some are audiences that you don't want to miss.

DeFrancis (ARC): I think it takes both. You see less money spent on advertising and more on grassroots efforts. But there may be an age differential because I think people in their 20s and 30s are much more willing to believe the opinions of people they meet online and not necessarily someone they meet in person and know. They're very open with their own opinions and are willing to share.

Carter (US Marshals): That disturbs me too. Fifteen years into the Internet, I still get these incredibly erroneous e-mails that people forward. It's easy to hit send and harder to stop and think sometimes.

Solomon (Virilion): I don't think it's fair to attack the medium as untruthful when some people online are saying things that aren't correct. What's becoming more transparent is that fact that many sources are more valuable than a single source. When I was growing up it was a truth that Pluto was a planet, and that's no longer true. A bunch of experts raised their hand and said Pluto was no longer a planet. What defines the truth is socially created in the first place. An editor collaborating with a reporter makes it so. Or a group of people putting together the Webster's dictionary make it so. It makes the truth or formulation of a consensus more transparent because then you can actually find out who is on the committee of the Webster's committee that defined that definition. Or that fact that with the rescue package, they posted the bill online. They didn't just send it around to the committees, because they knew they needed the public's support.

Boudreau (Fleishman):
It's less of a transactional approach to reading the news. Pick up the paper, read the story, put it down. Now online with social media and networking, it's a conversation to connect with. It's a gabfest about things people are interested in. That has forever changed our business as communicators. The conversation is going on online whether we're there or not.

DeFrancis (ARC): For every time you worry about misinformation, there are other cases. Look what happened with Dan Rather; we always assumed they got it right, but we found out from a blogger that it wasn't right. There is a self-correcting function to it.

Pflieger (NAHB): I agree, particularly as it relates to the political process. The Internet as a whole has a gotcha mentality. Look at [Sen. George]Allen's campaign in Virginia [in 2004]. One misstep and you have to live with it forever. Or you say one thing and it's inaccurate, and you have a million people out there fact checking. He didn't misspeak, “he lied.” That goes on and on and compounds and that destroys you. It's a very different dynamic and it's transformed politics.

Gross (Scott Circle): That's why it's important to engage bloggers. If it's something in the Wall Street Journal [you don't agree with and] you can go to a blogger you have a good relationship with, and who has a lot of traffic on his or her site, and ask her to write the story …she can write that story based on her opinion of how the reporter got that story wrong, you can move that information along.

Petruzzello (Qorvis): One of the biggest challenge we have in this industry is we know there are a lot of bloggers out there, we can compile them all, but I don't think anyone has measured with any precision what the impact of them is.

Pflieger (NAHB): We killed our blog. I was putting more resources in maintaining our blog and spending more than it's worth. [We were] getting more out impact in terms of traditional means.

Boudreau (Fleishman): Did you have any complaints?

Pflieger (NAHB): Not one.

Kitchens (AARP): We had just the opposite situation. We launched our own blog. It's been a research challenge, but we've had a lot of success. One of the reasons it's worked is because of cross-channel communications. Our members have found it a great way to register their thoughts and opinions. It comes down to resources.

O'Brien (PRWeek): Have you done research with members on how many read blogs? There's a misperception that blogging is a young man's sport. But if you look at the top bloggers, many started when they were 40 or 45.


Kitchens (AARP): I think there's a tremendous misperception about who's blogging or who's reading them. We've seen a dramatic increase in members online, involved in Facebook, doing their own Facebook pages.

Diversity in PR

O'Brien (PRWeek): Being as we are in the land of the Census, everyone knows about the changing demographics of America. Are we seeing changes in diversity and what can be done to improve it?

Carter (US Marshals): I went to graduate school on the Coast Guard's dime and my wife found it interesting that in the study group it was me and a bunch of young ladies. I think genderwise, we've got a good mix. Racewise, there's still some work to do.

Dhillon (MS&L): I'm Asian-American. Right now we have a good mix of African Americans [applying for jobs]. Hispanics, it's always hard to find good Hispanics with a communications background. I don't really think about it anymore. Ten years ago, it was very important, but now you look at it, it's already existing, it's already integrated into the workforce. I think we can just check that box. HR constantly reminds us too that it's an important aspect. I think we're OK.

O'Brien (PRWeek): There's obviously the longer term goal or challenge of getting people of diverse backgrounds into managerial positions. Do you feel like you're getting a diverse groups of applicants compared with 5-10 years ago?


Pflieger (NAHB): More universities have more communications tracks than five or 10 years ago. In the universities it's becoming a much more focused major than I've ever seen. From a university point of view it's across the board.

Petruzzello (Qorvis): We also see a lot more applicants coming out of business school, law school, not just schools of journalism or communication. Much more diverse educational backgrounds, which is great.

Pflieger (NAHB): One of my concerns is the quality of writers. Part of the problem is our candidates think they are very good writers. But their structure [and] grammar oftentimes are non-existent. I actually blame the colleges. I sometimes wonder how they got through college not being able to write. It's not my job to do a remedial writing course.

Barber (DOD): And it's going to get worse because of all the time spent on social media and networks.

Dhillon (MS&L): We've instituted a writing program. Sixty minutes, you do it in the lunch hour. At the entry level, I'd say only about 20 percent pass the test. With the clients, if they complain about the quality of the writing, then you're not going to get the contract next year.

McGarry (AdvaMed): When I have some free time, I'm going to look at the curriculums. It's not so much they couldn't write, it's that they didn't think they had to, and they don't like to write. I'm thinking the curriculum places all the emphasis on new media and podcasts. There's not a premium placed on the writing.

Gross (Scott Circle): But it's everything. Remember you used to write a thank-you note for a job interview? Now it's an e-mail and maybe you write a paragraph. I had a teacher who if you missed one thing in AP style, it would be minus a grade point. It's not everyone, I don't want to stereotype, but it's frustrating.  

McKenna (PRWeek): Is everyone now readying their outreach for the start of the next Congress?

Kitchens (AARP): We're concerned about the general atmosphere in Washington. The package has only soured the opinion of Washington, added to the political posturing, the who, what, why and why. The concern we have is with healthcare reform, financial security, trying to create the atmosphere to engage Washington with the issues concerning our members.

Boudreau (Fleishman): We have a number of clients who are trying to engage with the campaigns right now, so they are laying the groundwork in advance, so that their issues will be part of the dialogue when the new administration and Congress come in.

McKenna (PRWeek): What about issues of homeland security or the war in Iraq? Do these still have any impact?


Barber (DOD): Notice we've talking for an hour and a half and this is the first time the war has come up. Another time and that would have been all we were focused on.

Kitchens (AARP): But in Washington it only takes one incident to change what people are talking about.

Key points:
Wall Street's troubles are affecting the jobs of public affairs pros
Newsrooms, industry pros are struggling to understand blog's role
Obama's and McCain's campaigns are good examples of combining online and offline tactics

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