Washington, DC, is undeniably a company town. Ted McKenna goes inside the Beltway to look at DC's trends and opinions
People who live in the Washington, DC, region like to say that there's much more to life in the nation's capital than just politics. That's true, and yet so many businesses, trade associations, nonprofit groups, and other organizations have their origins in DC or deliberately base themselves here to be close to that free-spending, many-tentacled entity known as the federal government.
The agency picture
Every big-name national agency wants to have an office in Washington, just as they would in any other large market. However, this region also has a large number of boutique firms created by former Capitol Hill staffers or pros from the major PR firms.
For these small shops, lots of piecemeal work is available from all the groups needing to communicate with lawmakers, the media, public policy experts, and other influencers.
John Hellerman, partner and cofounder at Hellerman Baretz, notes that some consumer PR work occurs in the region, but typically local agencies focus on public affairs.
"You might have a big company that's retained a PR agency here, but that firm is not doing its consumer work," Hellerman says. "It's doing its legislative or general business trade work."
But Qorvis Communications MD Doug Poretz notes that many new businesses in the area, in such sectors like banking, biotech, and retail, create new opportunities for PR work that has no particular connection to government affairs. O'Keeffe & Company, for example, does media and strategic communications for a number of tech firms in Northern Virginia.
Edelman's DC president Rob Rehg notes that PR campaigns by Washington firms usually have some connection to lobbying.
"The most effective campaign has a lobbying and communications component," Rehg says. "They sit side by side."
Rob Tappan, president of Burson-Marsteller's local office, also attests to the importance of DC representation to foreign governments or corporations looking to shore up their reputations with the US public. He says another trend in new business for public affairs firms may lie in efforts by corporations to contribute to US public diplomacy or reputation overseas.
One major topic of conversation among public affairs firms of late: the upcoming mid-term elections, including the possible Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives. In turn, firms are scrambling to hire influential Democratic staffers from Capitol Hill to ensure continued access to committee leaders.
The corporate story
Defense companies loom large in the Washington area. In Crystal City, a section of Arlington, VA, just south of the Pentagon, major contractors like Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman account for a large amount of office space.
It's also no coincidence that many telecommunications and information technology companies are also either headquartered or maintain offices in Northern Virginia or along Interstate 270 in Maryland, the other major tech area of the region, given the government origins of many technologies, as well as company founders and researchers.
"[Yet,] there are certainly home-grown firms that aren't connected with the government - for instance, Marriott and Discovery Communications, and some of the bio-science firms in Maryland," notes Marie Tibor, VP of communications at the Greater Washington Board of Trade (GWBT).
For any industry or profession, there is a national association to represent its interests in Washington, and probably more than one. Besides the trade groups and other corporate interests, many nonprofits are also located in DC to be close to legislators.
Rachel Querry, PR director at the Humane Society of the United States, says that at industry events in the area, nonprofit public affairs pros do tend to gravitate toward one another, because of their shared experiences and challenges. To improve efficiency and influence, her group has sought, when possible, to merge with nonprofits with similar goals, most recently absorbing the Doris Day Animal League.
For other nonprofits, such as the Washington Literacy Council, whose volunteers teach kids and adults in the city to read, the region's dynamic and accessible media market helps compensate for a very competitive fundraising environment, says executive director Elisabeth Liptak, as do the large number of PR pros in the region willing to donate their time and knowledge.
"We need PR to get good volunteers, but also to attract funders [and] let people know what we're doing, because it's such a competitive area," Liptak says.
The media scene
Nothing tops The Washington Post for setting the area's business, political, and cultural agenda, says Qorvis' Poretz, though The Washingtonian magazine, the Washington City Paper, the Washington Business Journal, the Washington Times, and other publications also keep locals informed.
Apart from various tech publications like Washington Technology and Government Computer News, the political publications like Roll Call, The Hill, and Congressional Quarterly, and the Sunday morning political TV shows, the huge variety and concentration of media outlets from around the US and the world is a real benefit to PR and public affairs agencies that operate in the region.
"I was able [in part] to get a story placed in Reuters because the guy parks next to me at the Metro," says the GWBT's Tibor. "It went to 70 newspapers around the country".
Chris Knudson, VP of communications of the DC Chamber of Commerce, which represents local business and promotes the city generally, notes the large numbers of journalists in the region means local issues can quickly become national news. The city's recent "crime emergency," for example, was widely reported around the country and fostered the sense of Washington, DC, as more of a "crime-ridden" city than usual.
"When somebody gets mugged on the National Mall, it's national news," Knudson says. As such, the high concentration of media may be "an advantage when you're sharing good news, but when you are trying to deflect negative publicity, it's a real disadvantage."