Public Affairs Roundtable: Beltway challenges

Corporate crises, the midterm elections, and a shifting media landscape are all realities impacting public affairs.

Corporate crises, the midterm elections, and a shifting media landscape are all realities impacting public affairs. Steve Barrett and Jaimy Lee were in Washington, DC, for this Fleishman-Hillard-sponsored roundtable.

The participants


David Albritton, VP of communications at ITT Defense & Information Solutions

Bill Black, co-chair of global public affairs at Fleishman-Hillard

Edwin Chen, director of federal communications for the Natural Resources Defense Council

Tita Freeman, VP of communications and strategy at the US Chamber of Commerce

Adam Kovacevich, senior manager of issues and policy communications at Google

Dan Leistikow, director of public affairs for the Department of Energy

Emily Lenzner, MD at SKDKnickerbocker

Wanda Moebius, VP of policy communications for AdvaMed

Mike Moran, director of communications in the Washington office of Ford

Lt. Commander Christopher O'Neil, chief of media relations for the US Coast Guard

Robert Schooling, MD of the Washington office of APCO Worldwide

Impact of corporate crises
Steve Barrett (PRWeek): How do you think corporate crises are affecting the legislative agenda?

Christopher O'Neil (US Coast Guard): If you look at Deepwater Horizon, it's a little early to tell. The writing is definitely on the wall that there's going to be a look at the National Contingency Plan and the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. There's some consternation with the concept of the Unified Command. When this incident of national safety and significance happened, and a national incident command was established, you could see it just wasn't jiving with the expectations here in the Beltway. At the end of the day, someone's going to take a look at that process and, depending on how the reviews of Open 90 and the national contingency plan go, you might see some of those communications constructs legislated along with those changes.

Barrett (PRWeek): What about in the motor industry?

Mike Moran (Ford): Overall, Congress and the legislative process are doing some very serious work. I think they're really drawn to the headlines. With the corporate crisis, they are drawn to that crisis. We're getting more discussion now on steroids than a lot of other issues on the economy, taxes, and the environment. There were 200 million contacts to Congress in 2004. That's four times as much as 10 years before that. They gravitate towards the headlines, which are typically corporate crisis. It really presents a challenge to break through, not only with members of Congress and their staff in a public affairs initiative, but also with the media and those in communications following the issue. I hesitate to call it clutter, but there's a tremendous amount of chatter that's out there. It's becoming more and more difficult to do so.

Wanda Moebius (AdvaMed): Going back two years, to 2008, there were a lot of corporate scandals and problems and instances where people were very angry at corporate America. That anger resonated on the Hill and, to some degree, you're still seeing it. Corporate crises can drive an entire political cycle. We're seeing that now. How our companies and corporate America handle these crises as they arise can definitely impact what Congress is going to be looking at in the year ahead. How much did the oil spill drive environmental legislation?

Edwin Chen (Natural Resources Defense Council): A lot of environmentalists thought in some ways this was going to push the climate bill over the top. From the outside, it looked so unrealistic when the President started to do healthcare, the Democrats were not going to walk one more plank, whatever it was.

Bill Black (Fleishman-Hillard): It's the same as it's always been. When there's a corporate scandal, there may be some generated controversy. I'm reminded, in the pre-digital age, of the tobacco CEOs with their hands raised. But it's an eternal reality in this town that scandal does generate a lot of activity. Whether it generates legislation or not is the question.

Tita Freeman (US Chamber of Commerce): My point of view is a little bit different and it's admittedly a parochial one since I work for the business community. The various corporate crises have given a mandate to Congress to impose some of the most burdensome regulations on the business community in history. If you look at the financial reform legislation that just passed, healthcare reform legislation, and some of the new labor regulations that have been imposed, the buzzword in this town amongst businesses is “uncertainty,” that “We want to move forward with growing our business, with creating jobs but there's so much uncertainly surrounding the new laws and regulations.” It's posed a bit of a dilemma for this administration, which needs business to spur job creation but has imposed a tremendous amount of new draconian rules and regulations that businesses have to grapple with.

Emily Lenzner (SKDKnickerbocker): Given the uncertainty, there's an opportunity now for a lot of these corporations to prepare themselves better. They can do a much better job preparing themselves for crises.

Barrett (PRWeek): President Obama's been in power about 20 months, and one of his big initiatives was his transparency initiative. I wondered about the impact on your communications. What changes have you seen?

O'Neil (US Coast Guard): You start by looking at the AP story that talks about the Freedom of Information Act process. AP did an investigation and found certain departments within the Department of Homeland Security were massaging that timeline. Information wasn't being provided on a time schedule as mandated by those laws. But I never saw any consequences from that. The effect is it's an administration that's said we're going to be more transparent. It hasn't affected the way I, as a federal communicator, communicate with the publics I serve. Are we less transparent than 20 months ago? I don't think so. Are we more transparent than 20 months ago? I don't think so.

Dan Leistikow (US Department of Energy): Transparency is not something that's either a yes or a no. We're all constantly pushing ourselves towards greater levels of transparency. At the Department of Energy, we see it as a real advantage. In the Recovery Act, we get regular reports about how the states are doing in implementing grant programs. For example, on the weatherization program, the Recovery Act invested $5 billion in state programs. That's an historic investment in energy efficiency at the very local level. It's the responsibility of states to make sure those funds are being spent, weatherization is actually happening and the program is actually working. One of the most effective steps we took was to post online every month how many homes have been weatherized by every state and tell the governors in advance, “Hey, we're going to be posting this information online so your local reporters are going to be able to see and the people you're serving are going to be able to see how you're doing and how you compare to the other states.” That's an incredible motivator. Over the past six months, many of the states have doubled and tripled their performance and part of that is because we've made the process as transparent as possible.

Barrett (PRWeek): Any implications in the defense industry?

David Albritton (ITT Defense): The budget for the Defense Department represents about half the discretionary spend of the entire federal government. The recent pronouncements by Secretary Gates in terms of driving about $100 billion in efficiency from the Defense Department are a very public statement about trying to procure goods and services a lot more efficiently. The way we procure is changing. There's not going to be this bubble of money being spent on procurement out of the wartime supplementals. A lot of procurement is going to be driven into the base budget for the Defense Department and procuring goods and services more efficiently is a very public statement. They've done a really good job at the Pentagon in pronouncing that openly. They've tried to be really transparent in how they're communicating. In industry, as people who try to use those procurement dollars to provide goods and services for the government, we also have to fall into this as well and talk about how efficiently we are procuring our programs to support the government needs.

Moran (Ford): It was really groundbreaking when the president brought together all those interests that had traditionally been in a tug-of-war on fuel economy standards - environmental groups, auto companies, the states - at the same time, in the same conversation, over a period of months, talking about the goals for fuel efficiency and fuel standards. We did reach those standards for 2016. That was one of the examples we've seen where transparency really worked and people openly talked about what they could achieve in those standards.

O'Neil (US Coast Guard): The Recovery Act was a really good example. For our organization, there was great press from the start about how we are going to account for this money, show how it was spent, what is the deliverable to the American taxpayer, how it benefits those communities where it's being spent, and how you get all that information to a singular place where a taxpayer can go and look at it and say, “Oh, the Coast Guard spent this many millions of dollars and it resulted in this, this, this, and this.” It was a lot of change in the beginning, especially with the procurement people. But, at the end of the day, it developed a really good process and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act website served the purpose it was intended for, which was the accountability of those funds as they went through different federal entities.

Black (Fleishman-Hillard):
The irony, of course, is that this is the stimulus bill that is being used as a battering ram against Obama as an utter failure that didn't create any jobs. But you have these sub-categories of people who can go and get this information. There have been benefits demonstrated by this legislation, but you have this separate conversation going on at the political level that is very partisan, where it is taken for granted that the stimulus bill is a total failure.

Robert Schooling (APCO Worldwide): Government is usually a trailing indicator, not a leading indicator. When I think about transparency, government doesn't have much to do with it. The government's transparency initiative is certainly important in its own right and a worthy thing that we should all aspire to – but it's not what has driven transparency in the business community, communications, or media. It is consumer demand, consumer access to information, and consumer expectations for transparency. Every one of us would counsel our own organizations or clients that, “All will be revealed.” So, start with that assumption, start with the truth, and then talk about how to package that in the right way.

Chen (Natural Resources Defense Council): One of the most dramatic manifestations of this 24/7 media world is the negative impact it has had on the world's greatest political power. The President is having great trouble getting his messages out, not only because of the democratization of media, but also partly due to incompetence. The White House is not occupying the bandwidth it used to with older media. Having spent 10 years covering the White House, the effect is so dramatic and that's why you hear about the President talking about going over the White House reporters, going over the filter. Now, we can all go over the filter. It's great to have a piece in The New York Times. It still makes a difference, but all you need is to get one hit somewhere in this boundless universe.

Bracing for the midterms
Barrett (PRWeek): Talking about the midterms, how are you as communications strategists preparing for the potential of Republicans coming in?

Black (Fleishman-Hillard): Since everything significant has essentially been accomplished with no Republicans, it means less will be accomplished in Congress over the next two years. We're going to see less legislative activity, although enough has happened for there to probably be a lot of regulatory activity, which is a whole other challenge.

Moran (Ford): When you get to the new Congress, you're going to see vastly changed committee make-ups. Some people will be more active and you're going to be challenged in the public affairs arena to react and strategize and understand who has come into power, who has left power in those committees, and what the impact is going to be on a group or a business.

Moebius (AdvaMed): One element of the midterms is the power of the process story. Political reporters have long lamented the force of nature that is the process story and it's starting to seep into business coverage. We've seen that on the BP coverage and Google and how did Google come up with this policy. It's not enough to just cover the news announcement. They want to know how you got there, why you got there, how much you spent, and see the focus groups. What used to be a political phenomenon has really become a business phenomenon.

Adam Kovacevich (Google):
There are two big categories of public affairs challenges in Washington. You're either trying to get something done or you're trying to prevent bad things from happening. In a deadlock environment it's going to be next to impossible to get anything done, but that will force companies and advocacy groups to look for non-legislative ways to advance the same agenda. We care a lot about broadband access, but we are not counting on the FCC to do a lot concrete there so we've launched this big experimental fiber demonstration project. In the second category – preventing bad things from happening – it's hard to imagine that changing a lot except the companies and industries who are targeted by the partisan changes in Congress, if that happens.

Black (Fleishman-Hillard): If the Republicans do take over a majority of either body, you're going to see investigations. You're going to have clients being brought up before committees. There could be a lot of activity that's very visible and creates communications challenges.

Dealing with different media
Barrett (PRWeek): What are some of the challenges in communicating using social media as opposed to traditional media in the public affairs arena?

Moran (Ford):
We see it as direct contact with the consumers because they're looking for us to communicate with them, not only on the product but also what we're doing as a company. We're talking about the environment and fuel economy and safety.

Albritton (ITT Defense): In the defense business, a lot of reporters from trade publications and even some mainstream publications and wires are starting to have their own blogs and actually engage a lot more. Sometimes, we have to be very wary about which hat you're talking to that person under. If they're talking to you under the auspices of their publication, there are obviously rules and regulations associated with their employment there. But if you're talking to that person as a blogger and you can have a conversation, you have to be very wary about what you're saying, because it could show up in the blog, whereas it might not show up in the actual news.

Kovacevich (Google): Several years ago, we started a public policy blog. This was pretty commonplace for Silicon Valley companies and how they dealt with communications in the Valley. But it seemed fairly new for the reporters we worked with here. Sometimes a regulatory development would happen and we would post our comment to the policy blog instead of actually putting out a press release. When reporters enquired, we would say, “Have you seen our blog?” It took a lot of getting used to for them to see the blog as our commentary or the place we were going to comment. We rebut stories using our Twitter account. I actually find it's not as useful anymore to try to seek a correction to a story. It's far more effective to try to get a rebuttal cycle going through a very substantive blog post. About a year ago a Wall Street Journal story had broken late on a Sunday and, in our view, mischaracterized what we were doing. Within about an hour after the story hit online, we had a post on our policy blog and that started a cycle where other bloggers and commentators were able to pick up our story in a way that is far more effective than asking for a correction, which you may not get anyway.

Schooling (APCO): People spend time lamenting the decline of journalism, but I actually think we're in the golden age of communications. In the more narrowcast world we're trying to background reporters and condense that sound bite into a couple of sentences and convey this endlessly complicated story. Social media gives us the ability to have so much more nuance, content, and depth, and to hold people accountable to accuracy. A client had an enormously complicated story and they just couldn't explain it to a reporter because it could not be narrowed down to a half paragraph. They took it to some policy bloggers who wrote 18 paragraphs. The reporters read that and said, “Oh, we get it and we can go quote those bloggers.”

Black (Fleishman-Hillard): The challenge for people in our business is that it does really require a fundamental change in mindset in how you engage and use communications, because there is this loss of control and people have to be willing to concede that loss of control. If you put a blog post up you can explain it the way you want to explain it, but in order for it to have credibility, you might have to have comments and it's a big adjustment for corporate communicators to accept. Once you get to the point where you recognize this is a new, somewhat tumultuous environment, you have a higher quality of conversation - but taking that step requires encouragement and adjustment.

O'Neil (US Coast Guard): In the digital age, where the immediacy of information and the access senior leadership has to that information, the next part of that counsel is advising them about what they need to let roll off their backs and what they need to respond to. Getting folks to that comfort level is a challenge.

Leistikow (US Department of Energy): The other thing about the digital age is that it is both wonderful and terrifying – it is the great equalizer. A story on the front page of The New York Times doesn't necessarily drive the news cycle more than an obscure, ideological blogger who posts something outrageous. If that's what gets picked up on the Drudge Report and in other places, that can create great opportunities - but it's also very unsettling for a lot of people.

Moebius (AdvaMed): The great thing is the leveraging effect of social media. It's so rare that you get a fully positive story, so when you do get that gem you want to post it, put it in the news aggregators, make sure the [The Washington Post] gets it, and make sure everybody in town who's reading the different newsletters gets it. You tweet it. You put it on your Facebook. You e-mail it to your friends. And you make sure the right reporters who are writing the newsletters get it.

Lenzner (SKDK):
Twitter and Facebook and the other social media technologies create an accessibility and personal access for the constituencies you're trying to reach. For most journalists today, that's where they're accessible.

Freeman (US Chamber of Commerce):
The pitfall is that it's raised expectations. As a consumer of information you want things immediately. But that comes at a cost. The Chamber was the subject of a hoax press conference last year. We got a note from an energy reporter that he was on his way to the Chamber's press conference on climate change at the Press Club. It turned out it was a hoax, but by the time we got there they were 10 minutes into the press conference and Reuters and CNBC had already written about the Chamber reversing its stance on climate change.

Adjusting to social media
Barrett (PRWeek): How has social media changed the media landscape in DC?

Black (Fleishman-Hillard): The way things have changed feeds that partisanship and is characterizing events and loading them with partisan implications. Social media has caused even mainstream and objective media to play into the partisan disputes.

Chen (Natural Resources Defense Council): In some ways, the 24/7 nature of the media world today is actually a reflection of the partisan press at the founding of our republic, when the media and newspapers and pamphlets were extremely partisan and vicious.

Moebius (AdvaMed): It's also a gaffe-driven news cycle. People make a mistake, like a public official, and that can lead a news cycle for almost a day. It shows up on YouTube. Maybe it's because we enjoy watching people make mistakes or it's the YouTube culture of watching people drive their bikes into walls that extends naturally into politics.

Leistikow (US Department of Energy): One important thing to remember is that the DC press corps is clearly very influential, but most Americans are still getting their news from local sources. At the Department of Energy we try to have very aggressive, constant outreach to local media organizations. If we're announcing grants all over the country we can send out a press release to the DC press corps, who won't care, or we can send out 35 state-by-state releases. The local press is much more willing to report on actual substance and policy than the national media.

O'Neil (US Coast Guard): In the last three months my Twitter following has grown about threefold. There's a long line of journalists who now follow me. There are outlets that exist solely in social media. The demand for information from them is even more immediate than it is from CNN or Fox News.

Lenzner (SKDK): You need to know your audience and follow the journalists that are covering whatever you're communicating. There are different constituencies, whether it's the local press or the DC press. Because of the Web, stories are developing in real time. A reporter might get a big break and they tweet it. Drudge is always saying, “Developing.” Every reporter is now following that model and they blog about it and respond through the course of the day. As a communications person you have to be there to respond to it immediately.

Moebius (AdvaMed): But we have an obligation to check the facts, check with our different departments, and make sure people have input. By then, in social media time, it's two years later. You can't compromise on factual accuracy, because ultimately critics will look at what we say and hold it to a higher standard than something they read in a blog. We represent an industry, so we are definitely held to a higher standard.

Freeman (US Chamber of Commerce): Headlines have become much more sensational. I'm astounded when we have a press conference and the facts are very clear and the story articulates it very well, but the headline in Roll Call or Politico will be completely off base and incendiary and not what we communicated. That's part of these publications trying to emerge from this muck. There's so much out there, and the only way they're going to grab attention is with the most sensational headlines.

Black (Fleishman-Hillard): That's because that's the tweet.

Kovacevich (Google): Howard Kurtz at the Post did a great column about this. The Post has a separate team that rewrites headlines for the Web edition. And the Web headlines are often very different from the print headlines, but any mention of Paris Hilton or the Jonas Brothers in an article will certainly get immediate play in a headline on the Web.

Moebius (AdvaMed):
The headlines are definitely getting more salacious and sensational. You can't hold the reporter responsible for that. We all know it's the editor's fault. It makes it challenging when you go into your senior executives and explain, “It's a great article.”

Barrett (PRWeek): Do you think Fox and some of the other channels have gained on CNN because they are being more sensational? Would you rather be featured on Fox or would you rather be on CNN?

Chen (Natural Resources Defense Council):
It depends on your target for that particular message. Sometimes, we would rather be on Fox rather than CNN.

Schooling (APCO): Pew Research Center did a study that looked at exactly this question. It found the only cable outlet that is maintaining and growing market share is Fox. Republicans are increasingly getting their news from Fox, whereas the other channels haven't staked out a strong enough identity.

Moebius (AdvaMed): Most public affairs campaigns now have two tracks or more, where you have very niche outreach where you're going to your trades and getting very in-depth, accurate, but maybe not timely articles that are going to be read by regulators, Capitol Hill, and appropriators. Then you have mass media. The AP story, the Reuters story, the Bloomberg story. You can hold a press conference and these guys file three stories during one press conference, updating over the course of 45 minutes. You have to have the two track going; otherwise you're not getting your full story out.

Current and upcoming issues
Barrett (PRWeek):
What are the biggest public affairs challenges you've seen over the last 12 months and the ones you see continuing moving forwards?

Albritton (ITT Defense): Because the defense department has moved away from large platforms such as the F-22 and large ships and is looking for different types of solutions to provide the best defense for the nation and our interests abroad, the challenge for communicators is how to position your company in new spaces, domestically and internationally. Companies like ITT and Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, and Boeing, are increasingly looking abroad for opportunities to grow our businesses and we're looking at new diverse sets of customers outside the defense department, such as the Federal Aviation Administration, NASA, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and National Security Agency. How do you reposition your company in these new audience areas where you've traditionally focused on the Department of Defense? You have to find new and unique ways to influence people in places around the world.

Schooling (APCO): We talked about corporate crises and the changing media landscape. The biggest challenges of the last year, and next as well, is the extent to which corporate vilification can happen. It's driven by the extreme partisanship we see in government and the speed of the news cycle. Facts that may not be facts could be very quickly put into the public domain without explanation and you may see six news cycles within about 20 minutes elaborating on that fact, which might not be a fact. Companies, trade associations, and responsible parties are held to a higher standard. We can't respond in five seconds to an allegation because we have to go and find out the truth. Whatever we say will be on the public record forever. If we're wrong, our credibility will be damaged forever.

O'Neil (US Coast Guard): The speed in the news cycle is a challenge for my organization. A chain of command has to be followed. When information flows through that chain of command, it's not moving with the speed it is on Twitter and social media circles. How do you bridge that together and make the realization that you need to be more nimble to get that kind of stuff?  

Black (Fleishman-Hillard): Underlying all of this is where we started, which is the new social media. We all agree it's generating revolutionary, transformative change. The challenge for all of us is not only to manage our way through this to protect our clients or bosses from the threats this all creates, but also to look at the opportunities and think beyond the horizon to where this all might be going and how to take advantage of it.

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