Lobbying restrictions prompt new tactics for policy debate

One of President Barack Obama's first directives upon taking office was to introduce restrictions that sought to limit the influence of lobbyists.

One of President Barack Obama's first directives upon taking office was to introduce restrictions that sought to limit the influence of lobbyists. While the restrictions don't seem to have slowed spending - four trade groups, including the US Chamber of Commerce and AARP, spent upwards of $12 million on lobbying in the first three quarters of 2009 - they have caused companies to assess their public affairs strategies.

"An organization must make its case, no matter what the rules are, no matter the atmosphere," says Bill Pendergast, GM of Fleishman-Hillard's Washington office. "If it can't make its case one way, it must find another way."

Increased CEO visibility
What has emerged as a result is an increase in CEO visibility in Washington and a greater need for broad social media and grassroots programs that can provide additional channels for policy-makers to receive information.

"We are seeing organizations maintain the same focus on lobbying," notes Pendergast, "but now surround that with a greater emphasis on communications."

Companies that have relied on lobbying in the past to influence the White House are finding that their own CEOs, CFOs, and COOs can be just as effective. Before the restrictions, the leader of a company's Washington office was the one to advocate.

"Those are the registered lobbyists who are precluded from having conversations with the Executive Branch," says Scott Pastrick, president and CEO of Prime Policy Group, a WPP-owned lobbying firm. "You've got a shift, which is paradigm-changing, to a CEO committed to coming to Washington."

The Obama administration has been vocal about its interest to work directly with industry leaders and has sought to distance itself from lobbying groups.

"We see thought leadership as more important than ever," says Peter Prodromou, EVP and corporate and advocacy practice leader for Racepoint Group. "It's starting to be perceived as a more valuable tactic because those who tend to be thought leaders tend to be the ones who ultimately influence outcomes."

Placing CEOs in the spotlight can provide media relations opportunities that might not have existed before, especially as lobbying firms step back into consulting roles with clients and work closely with PR agencies to define messaging and strategy.

"Managing those CEOs and building the talking points, the media, and the buzz around that message is becoming very important," explains Pastrick. "That is the new model [for] the Washington offices that are serious about really engaging in policy dialogue and helping the administration or trying to air some concerns."

Greater public dialogue
The restrictions have "placed a premium on engaging in more public discussion on issues," says Pendergast. "One of the best ways for an organization to pivot is to make its case more broadly in the public domain."

The lobbying restrictions have created another opportunity for organizations to use social media as a way to communicate issues broadly, through an aggressive Capitol Hill communications strategy and third-party activities, says Pastrick.

"There is more of a perceived wall that's been put up between the administration and K Street," says Prodromou. "At the same time, you have this phenomenon that happened with the use of social media in the last election.

"We're creating online grassroots as a means of getting to Congress," he adds. "Whether there were more restrictions or not, we'd still be taking this course, but it's a way to get people back into the Democratic process more directly."

Corporate heads go to washington

CEO Jeff Kindler has been an active participant in the healthcare debate both on Capitol Hill and in the White House, even as it spent $17 million-plus on lobbying in the first three quarters of 2009

Duke Energy
The company, which was awarded $200 million in stimulus funds for smart grids in October, advocated for smart grid funds through its CEO James Rogers

Goldman Sachs
CEO Lloyd Blankfein has acted as spokesperson for the company on issues from executive pay to TARP repayment, which spurred analysis from blogs and traditional media about his Beltway presence

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