Obama's ambitious agenda prompts a boost in issues-based communications

As a new president and Democratic Congress took control this January, companies in already highly regulated industries prepared for an onslaught of government attention.

As a new president and Democratic Congress took control this January, companies in already highly regulated industries prepared for an onslaught of government attention.

But Barack Obama's administration's ambitious platform, which promises to tackle everything from healthcare to the financial services industry to energy to telecoms, also presents opportunities for companies to stake out their positions on potential policy issues affecting their industries. Public affairs pros have quickly mobilized to develop issues-based communications to help companies join the public discussion while also working to protect their brands.

“I think what we're seeing... is an evolution toward a closer integration of public affairs and reputation,” says Robert Schooling, MD at APCO Worldwide's Washington office. “Because of the shift in political power, there are perhaps more opportunities to use issues. The landscape has changed, so there's a greater need to communicate, but there [are] also more things on the table to communicate about.”

While using issues as a communications strategy is not new to public affairs, focusing on issues PR to protect or even enhance a company's reputation has become more vital for the companies facing policy change.

“Highly regulated industries that have a lot of interaction with government are realizing that the types of things that tend to define their reputation are often the way that [their] interaction with government is perceived,” Schooling adds.

It's no longer as important for a pharma company to promote a brand-name drug to the general public as it is to ensure Beltway influencers and policy-makers that the company can provide drug access and affordability as part of the overall dialogue about healthcare reform, explains Torod Neptune, SVP and US public affairs practice leader for Waggener Edstrom Worldwide.

A ‘sense of urgency'
Unlike past public policy dialogues, the current recession adds a “sense of urgency” to corporate communications efforts, says Schooling.

“People and businesses [now] believe that it's important for policies to succeed,” he adds. “It's important that the stimulus package works. It's important that healthcare reform works.”

By using issues to tell their story, companies can connect their brand to a broader societal problem, which is crucial because of the heightened focus on policy issues in DC, adds Neptune.

Teva Pharmaceuticals is one example of a company that is working with a public affairs firm to prepare for the healthcare debate about reform. The Israeli company worked with Gibraltar Associates, its first US public affairs firm, to launch an awareness campaign about affordable healthcare in February 2009.

The reason is to encourage a debate as a way to “provide valuable insights to those decision and policy-makers in [DC] as they develop legislation to address this very important issue,” says Denise Bradley, senior director of North America corporate communications at Teva, by e-mail.

Choosing sides
In some cases, companies have changed what side of the issue they opt to focus on. Where the healthcare industry expressed concern about reform in the'90s, it now has signaled a desire to be a part of the solution, be it the economic recovery or healthcare reform, notes Jon Wentzel, EVP at Ogilvy PR Worldwide.

“There's been a huge cultural shift,” he adds.

BP, the petroleum company, has been using one consistent issues-based message: that it is BP's belief that it will take an energy mix, including biofuels, energy efficiency, solar and wind, and oil and natural gas, to address the US' energy needs, says Ronnie Chappell, VP of press and communications at BP.

He adds that the message has become more direct as the “energy debate has gained momentum.”

Jano Cabrera, MD at Burson-Marsteller, says the advantage of putting out issues-based messaging now is that companies have the chance to set the stage for the debates that are ahead.

“Now is the time to make that case,” he notes.

Ones to watch
The oil company has focused much of its messaging around the importance of energy efficiency, but is still facing major policy changes.

Dow Chemical. The plastics and chemical manufacturer issued its own energy plan for the US within weeks of President Obama's win. It has also focused communications around the “Human Element” campaign and its 2015 Sustainability Goals to position its brand.

WellPoint. The health insurer must be ready to communicate the financial ramifications of changes in coverage requirements, especially with a healthcare bill headed to the Senate by July.

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