Public affairs pros discover new areas of opportunity

From recovering housing markets and corporate handouts to the latest green strategies and tightening regulations, sweeping change is afoot in Washington. In addition to the big issues on everyone's radar, there are emerging opportunities for public affairs pros.

From recovering housing markets and corporate handouts to the latest green strategies and tightening regulations, sweeping change is afoot in Washington. In addition to the big issues on everyone's radar, there are emerging opportunities for public affairs pros.

Mike Lake, US head of public affairs at Burson-Marsteller, notes not just an increase in RFPs related to alternative and renewable fuels, but also requests to help promote new approaches, such as weatherization for low-income households and smart grid development.

“Most people support the idea of green technology in the form of wind, but not everyone is comfortable with seeing new power lines cutting across the landscape to get the power from where the wind is blowing to where there are population centers,” Lake says.

Lake adds that he expects that campaigns will emerge in the second half of 2009 once political appointees have been made to a variety of cabinet agencies and “we believe you will see an increase in new RFPs.”

In addition, Howard Opinsky, EVP at Powell Tate, Weber Shandwick's public affairs group, is seeing more interest in digital grassroots, which he attributes to the Obama campaign and “a new political environment where policymakers want to see how many real supporters you have for your cause [or] issue.”

Powell Tate executed a digital grassroots campaign for the Peter G. Peterson Foundation in anticipation of tax day, April 15, to recruit more advocates for national debt reduction. Tactics included a humorous Web site and social networking channels.

“We also recently launched several public awareness campaigns for financial services companies as their business practices have come under increasing criticism,” Opinsky says. “Our team has been very active assisting clients defending various consumer lending practices.”

There's also an indirect boost for information technology (IT) as clients present health IT, government information services, and security technology products to federal, state, and local governments as good uses for stimulus dollars, Opinsky says.

“The government is one of the few sectors still spending money and looking to invest, in particular, in technology to better deliver services or better run key functions of government at all levels,” he adds. “We are helping a number of clients position themselves as outstanding providers of those types of solutions. We see this business growing.”

The terms “lobbying” and “lobbyist” are now radioactive, warns Stan Collender, partner at Qorvis Communications. Clients are looking for ways to influence regulatory and legislative activities without directly contacting members of Congress, the administration, or the regulating agencies.

“Public affairs communications, where you raise visibility of an issue in a way that policymakers can't ignore, has become increasingly popular,” Collender says, adding that Op-Eds and news stories produce the best results. “This cuts across all issues that are on the front burner—taxes, spending, financial services—and others that proponents would like to move to the front burner.

“Washington is now the center of the business and financial universe,” Collender says. “Public affairs communications needs will be substantial for quite some time.”

Key Points
  • Public affairs practitioners are fielding more RFPs from technology providers pursuing stimulus dollars, as tech is increasingly viewed as good investment
  • Not only are green issues fertile ground for PA agencies, but also issues indirectly touching green (i.e. citing power lines linked to wind farms)
  • PA specialists are adopting grassroots tactics, as policymakers want to count heads to validate groundswell

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