Public Affairs Roundtable: Changes in policy

Public affairs leaders joined Rose Gordon at this Fleishman-Hillard-sponsored roundtable in Washington, DC, to discuss how their sector is impacted by factors such as the economy and the upcoming election.

Public affairs leaders joined Rose Gordon at this Fleishman-Hillard-sponsored roundtable in Washington, DC, to discuss how their sector is impacted by factors such as the economy and the upcoming election.

The participants
Carlos Alcazar, CEO and president, HCN
Amber Allman, Director, global public affairs, Yahoo
Mary Beth Cahill, Washington director, UAW
Pat Cleary, SVP digital public affairs, Fleishman-Hillard
Ed McFadden, VP, policy communications, Verizon Communications
Lauren Miller, Director, online communications, Blue State Digital
Steve O'Halloran, Public affairs director, Chase Card Services
Stephanie Mathews O'Keefe, EVP, communications, American Bankers Association
Bill Plummer, VP, external affairs, Huawei
Johanna Schneider, Executive director, external relations, Business Roundtable

Current events
Rose Gordon (PRWeek): You all come from different industries. What are your top public affairs issues for the coming year?

Johanna Schneider (Business Roundtable): My organization represents CEOs of companies all across the US. For large employers, the top public affairs challenges are corporate rate and tax reform as number one, two, and three. Then, it's probably trade. It's a challenge trying to coalesce a consensus around not just the three trade agreements that we believe are pending, but the whole future of trade and how you cooperate with labor, how you identify standards.

Amber Allman (Yahoo): Being an online destination, our big issues are privacy both on the online safety side and data security. Intellectual property is also a big one.

Bill Plummer (Huawei): I think the number-one priority right now is to work within industry and government to ensure that there is a good understanding of the global interdependency of physical and digital supply chains and, based on that understanding, to develop industry-wide solutions to ensure the integrity of our networks.

Lauren Miller (Blue State Digital): My company is best known for its work with the Barack Obama political campaign. The real mission of the organization is to build online communities that empower people to take action on behalf of other organizations.

We work with a lot of different advocacy groups, a lot of environmental and immigration groups. They all have their issues. From our perspective, it's difficult for the economy not to overshadow everything. It's tough for these organizations to have to fight for a budget they've never had to fight for before. They've never had to see disaster relief organizations have to fight for their budget versus tax cuts. So we have to fight apathy, the idea that the government is actually going to do something on these issues for the next 12 months.

Ed McFadden (Verizon): Chief among the different public policy issues we're focusing on is the tax code and the corporate rate. But there are also just a host of other tax issues related to consumers' wireless taxation, online taxation, and where we think we need to make the rates and the tax policy a bit more competitive and pro-consumer.

We're also focused on the antiquated subsidy issues related to phone and broadband interconnectivity, universal service reform, and inter-carrier compensation. We're also very engaged on privacy and network security.

Mary Beth Cahill (UAW): Our major concern over the next year is building more middle-class jobs in America, whether that is The Big Three contracts, which are currently being negotiated in Detroit, or organizing transnational carmakers who are unionized in their own country and paying workers a great deal less.

Pat Cleary (Fleishman-Hillard): I see two clear areas emerging. First, regulatory issues. A lot of clients are concerned that the action has moved from Congress to the regulatory agencies – various regulatory issues around safety of substances or transportation. Then there is that the other bucket where we see a lot of activity these days is in federal funding, groups that are trying to maintain, change, or increase their federal funding.

Stephanie O'Keefe (American Bankers Association [ABA]): There is one big issue: the Dodd-Frank implementation and how the rules are put into place. There are challenges both on the regulatory and legislative side because in the understandable rush to regulate in the wake of the crisis, a lot of the rules that were put in place, the right hand didn't know what the left hand was doing. Sometimes they corrected the same thing four different ways.

In trying to get to the point where we have clear direction to the banks so that they can lend and do their part for job creation, we want to just understand. They want some certainty and to understand what the rules actually are.

Steve O'Halloran (Chase Card Services): Our issues are probably not a whole lot different from what Stephanie laid out. Really, it's the new financial regulations that have been put in place. Whether it's Dodd-Frank or specifically the CARD Act in our case, those all, at least in our case, will impact the customer experience.

For us, it's how do those changes in regulation impact the customer? What are we going to be seeing on the horizon with financial regulations? Everybody is learning as they go, so it will be a process.

Carlos Alcazar (Hispanic Communications Network [HCN]): Civic engagement is probably one of the biggest issues for our community in terms of communicating. If we don't engage them and let them know that their vote will make a difference on each one of the issues you've all brought up here, it just won't work. From a public affairs and big- picture perspective, civic engagement is just absolutely critical. All of the issues we are talking about impact the Hispanic market and Latino community, which is exploding and growing in terms of demographics.

Effecting change
Gordon (PRWeek): You've all laid the issues out, so how are you going to achieve things through your public affairs?

Schneider (Business Roundtable): What everybody has commented on in one way, shape, or form is related to the economy and how it performs. We will have to put each of our individual issues through the lens of economic growth. The story about income levels being essentially at the 1993 level is additional difficult news. Some of our efforts will be thwarted if we don't identify for policymakers how this impacts the economy in the long and short term.

Allman (Yahoo): I would completely agree. Back to online privacy, what we deal with quite a bit is looking at legislation that could be so incredibly stringent that it would entirely squelch the online economy. Something like the privacy debate had been a [topic limited to a] handful of journalists in Washington, DC, who deal with technology policy. Social media and a lot of other avenues have increased many of these issues, such as spectrum and net-neutrality, out to a much broader audience. So it's a consistent process of looking at these new audiences. How do you tell the story to them? It takes constant reevaluation of the messages.

McFadden (Verizon): A lot of our focus is in trying to get outside of the Beltway media and put our issues in the context of consumers. Consumers don't necessarily think of spectrum as a particularly important issue for them until they realize how it impacts their ability to use their smartphone, their wireless Internet access, or the public safety network that's being debated right now. All of those things have direct impacts on consumers. Especially when you're talking about regulatory issues, putting it in the context of the consumer is always helpful because it gets them a bit more engaged than they typically would be on these kinds of arcane issues.

Gordon (PRWeek): How are partnerships or coalitions helping to get your message across and reach the right people?

O'Keefe (ABA): There are places where you do have unlikely partners because you have a common issue to resolve. One of the parts of the new regulation around lending pertains to what the down payment needs to be.

Clearly there were issues over the past few years in folks not having saved enough to actually be financially stable enough to go into a home, but the bar has been raised so far that you're limiting access. There is a very broad coalition of groups, all putting an oar in the water in the same direction on this issue because it matters to everybody. It matters about folks being able to build wealth, but it also matters about jobs. Many people work in that industry to help build and repair houses.

O'Halloran (Chase): You mentioned coalition management, but it even goes one step further. For us, it actually goes to education, so it's talking to those groups or organizations who might not always see eye-to-eye with us. With a bit of education, they may understand, in our particular case anyway, what we are doing to help customers do a better job of spending and borrowing their money. How we are helping small businesses get access to credit. While you're building coalitions, you're also educating folks with whom you need to improve your relationship. In the long run, they actually come to appreciate that. 

Gordon (PRWeek): Can you provide an example?

O'Halloran (Chase): We offer a specific feature on our credit cards that actually helps you budget your money, Chase Blueprint. It helps you do a better job of budgeting the spending that you've done and how you're going to pay that down in a reasonable time, save interest, and have better control over your money. We need to educate organizations who speak about credit. We want to go back to them and say, “Here are the steps we've taken to help folks who have access to Blueprint and here are the metrics behind it that we're actually seeing success with.”

Just by opening that door a little bit by having that conversation, they get to learn about Blueprint and we get to have a relationship with them. That benefits both sides at the same time.

Schneider (Business Roundtable): We've created digital maps on our website, with quite a bit of success. One is for trade, so when you move your cursor around you see every congressional district and what it means to them. We had an independent economist do a breakout nationally of the three trade agreements, so you can look at the 16th District of Illinois and see it is going to potentially get this many jobs. For local folks, the local reporters can easily tap into our website and see the specific policy proposals that are in white papers, but also have something off of which to key their story.

We did the same thing with the Environmental Protection Agency on ozone regulations. We just took the EPA data and overlaid it on a digital map, so people could look and see which states, which districts, were currently in compliance and which were out of compliance. In terms of page views, it's been extraordinarily successful. You can tell from the URLs that members of Congress are coming because they're trying to see where their district comes up.

Political divide

Chris Cillizza, managing editor of and author of The Fix blog, spoke to an audience of public affairs professionals at a breakfast event preceding the roundtable. Cillizza, a prolific political blogger, writes eight to 10 daily posts for The Washington Post, in addition to his editing and tweeting responsibilities. He called the news environment today “a buffet” of options for the public, not unlike what you might find at the Bellagio in Las Vegas.

He also commented on the deep partisan divide in Washington now, as well as among the electorate. “We are for compromise in theory, but not in practice,” he said, which will make it harder to accomplish “big things” in the months leading up to the 2012 election.

Digital reality
Gordon (PRWeek): What other digital tactics or platforms are people using in their public affair campaigns?

Miller (Blue State): To influence the media, Twitter has been the most influential thing we've seen in the past five years. Facebook has been a great way to empower people to talk to their friends, but when it comes to influencing the media, we've seen the incredible power of Twitter. Reporters in their never-ending quest to beat the 24-hour news cycle and constantly provide fresh content, use things such as Twitter to find the next scoop.

But when it comes to driving people to take action, if we're talking from a supporter perspective and trying to build an army of people who are talking about our issue, a tweet or a Facebook post often doesn't do a whole lot. It doesn't really drive people to take action. That's why we are still seeing the success of the e-mail list in being able to drive people to take action or make a donation to a campaign. It may sound simple, it's not the sexiest thing, but it still drives people to take action.

Allman (Yahoo): Our corporate public policy blog has been a great resource. It may not be as exciting as the Drudge Report, but it is a good marker when you have those constant real-time aggregations. They can go back to that blog and really get our position, our perspective, and take time to really educate themselves. 

Another channel we've used quite a bit lately, going back to coalition building, is doing roundtables with off-the-record media invites. So we might have a handful of media who are really keen to these issues and we let them sit in a room and not just talk to our company, but hear the conversation among several people in the industry and see what their issues are. We all might not agree on everything about an issue, but they can see the give and take and really get a better sense of what's going on.

Cleary (Fleishman): We've had huge success growing coalitions and moving people to action with Twitter, which is a minuscule effort for huge payback. It has been unbelievable for us. Our clients just use Twitter ads.

Miller (Blue State): They're very expensive.

Cleary (Fleishman):
They're expensive, but they work. Also, I spent 10 years at The National Association of Manufacturers. I started their blog and did a lot of social media there. We had the same mindset that Amber mentioned about Drudge. Drudge is in the millions, so “why bother?” Do you get a couple hundred people, a couple thousand people? It is intimidating to get into this space. You have to ask, “How many people were looking at your press release?” Actually, maybe zero. So, now you've ticked up to 300. That's good. If it's the right people, so much the better.

McFadden (Verizon):
We've had a policy blog for a while. We're trying to expand that out a bit more with a policy page and policy site that becomes a self-service resource for reporters and people who are trying to get educated on issues.

I understand entirely why, from the marketing and the product and services side, Facebook and Twitter are so important for what we do. But from a policy perspective, from a DC and issue advocacy perspective, I don't think anybody has quite cracked the code with Twitter or anything else. I don't think you can explain net neutrality in 140 characters or successfully push back, fact check, or do a lot of the things we have to do on a day-to-day basis with reporters or other third-party folks on the social media side.

We can use these tools to some degree, but a lot of this is the old line, blocking/tackling, personal engagement with reporters, identifying influentials in the blogosphere and others you can work with and who are interested in your issues. Engage with them.

Cahill (UAW):
We have a multitude of channels from to Solidnet to e-wire, but we are very focused on communicating with our members and trying to move our members to action, so we're increasingly using Twitter. We are also texting them a lot. We are trying to strike the critical balance between spamming them, bothering them, and actually telling them something they need to know.

Any information you happen to have is not necessarily something people want to know. So, in order for them to pay attention to you, you must be really judicious about what you try to tell them. You have to be clear that they will feel like this is a benefit to them or they're going to turn you off.

O'Keefe (ABA):
That's a big challenge with our members, too. We have sort of a two-fold professional education for them and information about a whole range of issues. But also from a policy advocacy perspective, you want to make sure they have the information to act. Gordon (PRWeek): Has there been any upside to the 24-hour news cycle? What are the challenges?

Plummer (Huawei): It's not unmanageable. It's probably a positive because you do have the opportunity with the immediacy of media and the interactive experience to address facts.

The bigger challenge we face, for a number of historical reasons, is the longevity of media. I'm with a company that's been around for all of 23 years. It does have a heritage in China. There is a lot of misinformation, myth, innuendo, outright lies, that's been out there on this company for over 10 years, so the huge challenge is how do you address the fact that all of this stuff exists in this digital archive and it's rehashed over and over. It's a very challenging situation to be in.

Alcazar (HCN): The upside is that there is an opportunity and window for quality, fact- based reporting – for new content to be created in an environment where education and information is so important. Being able to take that outside-of-the-Beltway approach and use not only digital media but traditional media, which is still an important way to reach and inform our audiences.

Schneider (Business Roundtable): They have taken our profession – communications, public advocacy, public affairs – from off-Broadway and they've put it on Broadway. It's absolutely, I believe, a win, win, win. You have more channels. You have the ability to create content yourself. You have an entire generation that's growing up with news and information every day. They're stuck on it. It's tremendous. It gives us every opportunity to not just wait until reporters are about to report – it's a 24/7 spin cycle.

McFadden (Verizon): I would agree to some degree. We can certainly shape our stories and narratives proactively in a way that perhaps we couldn't before. There are so many different reporters and markets competing against each other. They're more interested in taking what, in the old world, would have just been considered PR pitches, and turning it into news.

The broader challenge, which goes to the education and the fact-checking issue, is that with social media, it's a feeder system. Being able to link to stories, send them around, share them on these broader networks, and get them out quickly. Our biggest challenge has been when somebody takes a bit of information and puts it up on a blog. You can call them and have them pull it down, but by the time they've done so, it's been two hours and five other bloggers have picked it up and shared it with a bunch of other people. Now you're trying to scramble, pulling all of this other stuff down. In that way, it's even tougher to try to control it, keep the facts straight, and keep the story moving in the direction you want it to.

Miller (Blue State): It's not really right to frame it as “Is it good or bad?” The conversation is going to happen about your organization, brand, campaign, whatever it may be, whether you like it or not. You can either jump into the conversation or you can have the conversation happen without you.

Yes, media monitoring no longer means just seeing what the reporters are writing about you. It does involve blog and social media monitoring. We have entire teams now dedicated to SEO who make sure those sorts of stories aren't number one on your Google or Yahoo rankings.

The great thing about social media, about e-mail, about all of the different methods of digital communication are maybe you don't have a million-person list, but maybe you have 5,000 people who really care about your cause who will go out there and champion things for you.

Cleary (Fleishman):  One old rule is don't take a small story and make it a big story. That's still true. So if you've got a blogger with four readers, you don't send him or her a cease-and-desist letter because now you've made it into a million readers. That rule still applies, but the old rule about never repeating your adversary's charges is out the window.

Schneider (Business Roundtable): The word “control” is just out of the lexicon. You can create more content, you can direct more appropriately, you can try to be creative.

Working with the media
Gordon (PRWeek): How are you grappling with the partisan nature of media? How do you take that in when you're thinking about going out with a story or a message?

Allman (Yahoo): Our issues are so bipartisan to a degree that it's not a huge factor.

Schneider (Business Roundtable):  We just try to know who the audiences are for each of these sites. We just separate it into “Who are we reaching?” We know that we must go to the partisan blogs, the hard-right blogs, and the hard-left blogs, if that's where we want to get the information out. As long as we know who the audience is at each of the blogs, we try to use them for their audience.

O'Keefe (ABA): I would concur. It isn't about the partisanship of the conduit. It's about what you're trying to achieve with your messaging and your policy objectives. You may have a geographic objective, a political objective, or any kinds of objective, but what you're focused on at the end of the day is, “Who am I trying to reach? What am I trying to say to them?” That's just a part of the calculus.

Plummer (Huawei): If you're keeping everything fact based, but you know you're dealing with someone who, because of your nature of your issue, is more hostile, then you're probably going to be more carefully forthcoming. That hostility doesn't have to be a partisan issue, but it can be. You can define certain issues as being more important to one side than to another. It does affect your posture.

The 2012 election
Gordon (PRWeek): As we head toward the 2012 election season, what is your biggest concern?

McFadden (Verizon): For us the challenge is less about the election; it's the aftermath and the number of new representatives and officials that come in, the amount of education we have to undertake. Obviously a number of the issues we deal with and that our customers and employees are concerned with aren't part of the overall political debate. So getting them up to speed on the regulatory issues and the things that matter is of much greater concern to us than focusing on who gets elected and when.

Cahill (UAW): Who gets elected matters to me, it would be safe to say. From where I sit, there's a lifetime between now and the Presidential elections. Everything that's being written currently about is as if the election were today, well it's not. There are going to be enormous events that loom over this campaign that we don't know anything about.

I look at House races, Senate races, and certainly the Presidential race. What matters to me is trying to raise the issues of working people and the need for a manufacturing policy in this country to a point of debate in the upcoming Presidential campaign.

Cleary (Fleishman):
From a completely agnostic perspective, gridlock is really bad for business. It just is. Every lobbyist in this town was working after Obama got elected. Some were working for healthcare. Some were working against. It didn't matter. Everybody was working.

Then after the 2010 elections, everything ground to a halt. We're working on an issue now. Everybody's kind of in agreement, but we need a legislative vehicle and we just can't get one. Nothing is going to happen. So I would just make the pitch for no gridlock post-election.

O'Keefe (ABA): Even institutionally when folks see that there is gridlock, you're working with your organization and with your members to try to get them to prepare for the time when there is an opportunity, or there is a window of opportunity. What you have to keep saying is, “You have to be ready.” You have to keep going and keep educating. It makes it more difficult to get people to engage and to be energized about it.

O'Halloran (Chase): We've seen so much change in the regulatory space for financial services that it's important that for whoever does come in that we help educate them, help them keep things in context, and help them understand what's happened already – the impact that's had on customers. If you don't keep that momentum up, things will change, sometimes not in your favor.

Schneider (Business Roundtable):
Anybody who has had a long career in Washington knows you're always in with the outs. It is professional suicide not to work both sides of the aisle at all times. You don't know what's around the corner.

From the Business Roundtable's perspective, the biggest concern is the day after the election. The economy is still going to be the economy, which will not have been impacted by the political process of electing a leader. No matter who steps in, no matter what the disposition is of the House and the Senate, it will still be a very difficult economy.

Alcazar (HCN): For the 2012 election, it will be interesting to see whether the gridlock and a lot of the channel noise being created by so much media attack will actually create a voter base that just doesn't want to turn out anymore. They don't feel like it's going to make any difference and that things have gotten so bad that maybe it just doesn't matter anymore.

Plummer (Huawei): Our biggest concern is the bashing of China and all things Chinese. There are very legitimate political, security, and economic concerns, as well as concerns about trade between the US and Chinese governments. Given that China is the country of our company's heritage, even though we're in 140 markets and do more than two-thirds of our business outside of China, it's going to be a long 12 months if China-bashing becomes part of the campaign DNA.

Miller (Blue State): Given my company's name, it's very clear we have a horse in the race. For the many other clients that we work for, we tend to have a fairly partisan split. With LGBT, environmental, and immigration groups, there are very big implications to all of them as to who wins in 2012. There is frustration in building online communities that these organizations aren't able to get anything done right now.

At the same time, when we had a recent debate that talked about building fences and not passing The Dream Act, that's great for an immigration group. It gives them something to be fired up about. Even in the inaction, we're able to create moments that can empower people to take action.

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