Nervous US work force poses comms obstacle to free trade

President Obama promised in January to double US exports over the next five years, a goal the administration says could create up to 2 million jobs in the US.

President Obama promised in January to double US exports over the next five years, a goal the administration says could create up to 2 million jobs in the US.

While the bulk of the business community, including multinational companies, supports trade agreements, Obama's pledge comes at a time when a portion of Americans, facing domestic job cuts and outsourcing fears, question the benefits of such deals.

"Fewer Americans believe trade, in general, and trade agreements, in particular, are good for the US," says Barry Schumacher, SVP and director of international policy at APCO Worldwide. "It's difficult to sell the benefits of trade to a skeptical public on the basis of a jobs-creation argument."

He adds that global trade accords, such as the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement, can create jobs. The issue, explains Schumacher, is that trade agreements also eliminate jobs and move jobs to different regions.

The free trade agreements with Korea, Panama, and Colombia were approved by the three nations in 2007, but have not been ratified by the US Congress.

Some policymakers have stated continued concern about opening up trade with certain countries, citing labor rights in Colombia and tax evasion in Panama.

A busy year for trade

"It's a busier year for trade," says Jim Meszaros, EVP and head of Powell Tate's international practice, "and it will be a busier year for companies, industry, and unions to generate communications to influence the debate."

He foresees the business and agriculture communities joining together to form a coalition that would push for trade to remain a top priority in Washington, as well as lobby for ratification.

"Trade is really in play this year," adds Meszaros. "That hasn't been the case in the past three years, where most of the trade activity was around enforcement of existing trade laws."

One example is the Embassy of the Republic of South Korea hiring Edelman and Glover Park Group in September 2010 to support its communications efforts.

In the four-month, $200,000 contract, Edelman was tasked with educating influencers in Washington about the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement.

Outside of Washington, the challenge is how policymakers and the business community will drum up public support for the three trade agreements, as well as the pending Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership Agreement, a free trade agreement between Brunei, Chile, New Zealand, and Singapore.

The US, Vietnam, Peru, Malaysia, and Australia, are currently petitioning to join the accord.

"Free trade during the Clinton and Bush years was very popular," says Meszaros. "Public opinion polls are increasingly saying that the majority of Americans don't think these agreements benefit US workers and companies."

Only 35% of Americans say free trade agreements have been good for the US, while 44% say they have been bad, according to the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. The study surveyed 1,255 adults in November 2010.

In addition, 28% of Republicans surveyed by Pew say free trade agreements are good for the US, a statistic that dropped 43% compared to the year before.

Waning support

Another opinion shift stems from business and policy circles. Schumacher says while the business community and Republicans tended to give blanket support for free trade agreements, it is no longer as certain.

"One of the things that has also changed about trade and the climate and challenges of communication is the split in the business community," he adds.

Multinationals continue to support trade agreements, while some Republicans and Tea Party members have voiced concerns about how opening up trade could affect national defense and security. Yet Schumacher predicts the free trade agreements with Korea, Panama, and Colombia will be enacted this year.

Agreement details Korea-US Free Trade Agreement

• Estimated to add $10 billion to $12 billion to annual US GDP

• Signed by US and Korea Republic in June 2007

Panama Trade Promotion Agreement

• Would support service industries such as financial services

• Approved by Panama in 2007

Colombia Free Trade Agreement

• Would eliminate most of Colombia's tariffs on US exports

• Congress in Colombia approved accord in 2007

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