Trade associations use size and unity to impact policy debate in Washington

America's Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), representing health insurers, was one of several trade groups to promise $2 trillion in savings to the White House in May, while the American Medical Association (AMA) made headlines when it released its stipulations for healthcare reform in preparation of a visit from President Barack Obama.

America's Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), representing health insurers, was one of several trade groups to promise $2 trillion in savings to the White House in May, while the American Medical Association (AMA) made headlines when it released its stipulations for healthcare reform in preparation of a visit from President Barack Obama.

News reports say that the AMA represents about 245,000 members and AHIP represents 1,300 companies, showing the trade associations are increasingly using their membership numbers and unified messages as fuel for policy debates in Washington.

While trade groups have always had a presence and a voice in the Beltway, the intensity of their communications efforts has amplified as a result of the administration's hard-hitting domestic agenda, a Democratic Congress, and the recession.

“Increasingly, trade associations are being pushed by their members to become aggressive advocates for their particular industry,” says Joe Farren, VP of global public affairs at Waggener Edstrom Worldwide. “Trade associations run trade shows and hold meetings, but, increasingly, the need and the value that the members see is in advocacy.”

AHIP and the AMA are only some of the trade organizations that have stepped up communications in recent months with aggressive messages and campaigns aimed at policymakers and the public. This allows their members to weigh in on the debate without the individual media spotlight.

“Some companies don't want visibility or have the financial resources to be aggressive individually in Washington, but [they] can join together to really leverage their investment dollars,” notes Mike Lake, chair of the US public affairs practice for Burson-Marsteller.

The power of numbers
Trade groups can also leverage their membership size to influence policymakers by noting how many businesses or total employees they represent.

“There's a stronger degree of self-interest when a politician is considering the viewpoint of a company,” says Tom Gray, director of communications for the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA).

Since President Obama took office, the AWEA has focused its message around the fact that the wind turbine industry can create a significant number of jobs.

“The intensity has stepped up some this year,” adds Gray. “The administration came in on a platform of trying to create a new clean energy industry. We're trying to take the most advantage of that.”

By creating a unified message, trade groups can position an industry to take advantage of the changing climate or to prepare to defend a system.

“You're seeing the private sector and trade associations refine their capabilities so they can be more nimble, responsive, and better positioned to capitalize on good news that affects their business and also push back strongly against any bad news,” says Matt Mackowiak, president of the Potomac Strategy Group.

He adds that trade groups are beginning to implement “campaign-style warfare” that can mobilize memberships and constituencies for industry issues, such as how the business industry reacted to the Employee Free Choice Act, or card check legislation.

“It's not a luxury to communicate, it's a fundamental need,” says Farren. “You have an enormous opportunity right now to communicate your company or your industry's value to the American worker, the American family, the American economy. There is a huge opportunity to do that.”

Industries like the stem-cell community are using the climate change in Washington to expand communications efforts and focus more on educating policymakers.

The Alliance for Regenerative Medicine, which includes member companies like Johnson & Johnson, Geron, and Stanford University, launched July 1.

“The time is really right,” says Michael Werner, an organizer for the alliance. “We've got a new administration, a new Congress talking about healthcare. Experience shows that we can be more powerful and persuasive as a group.”

Groups to watch

PhRMA
Created a national ad campaign, specifically targeting lawmakers, with Families USA in June to generate support for healthcare reform

American Financial Services Association
Said in July that it was launching an effort with five other trade groups to stop the creation of a federal consumer agency

American Chemistry Council
Reworked comms this spring as policymakers up focus on climate, energy, and chemical issues that could have long-term effects on the industry

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