DC unlocked

After two years of political gridlock, all eyes are on Capitol Hill's lawmakers as agencies and clients set their sights on achieving change.

After two years of political gridlock, all eyes are on Capitol Hill's lawmakers as agencies and clients set their sights on achieving change.

After weathering months of a cacophony of voices and text saying, “I approve this message” emanating from TV, mobile, and computer screens around the country, the 2012 elections wrapped with a win for Barack Obama. Now that the makeup of the House, Senate, and Oval Office is established, numerous parties will descend on the nation's capital to get their issues illuminated and acted upon quickly. In other words, after nearly two years of political action being in a holding pattern, DC will finally be unlocked.

A huge issue that will carry over from 2012 is travel. Last year, the US Travel Association launched a $5 million campaign to remind lawmakers the industry represents more than a trip to Florida, and instead is the source of millions of jobs and $1.9 trillion in annual economic impact.

The group plans to build on its 2012 Vote Travel campaign with Travel Blitz, a 2013 grassroots advocacy program that will include in-district roundtables, meetings with members of Congress and their staff, back-of-house industry tours for lawmakers at various locations, and local rallies in support of travel initiatives.

The trade group Airlines for America also plans to utilize a national campaign to influence lawmakers to pass comprehensive airline legislation that will reduce the taxes and fees airlines pay, eliminate certain rules that do not impact safety or the customer experience, modernize air traffic control systems, and stabilize energy prices.

The group hired Ketchum and DDC Advocacy to help develop the plan, which will include a website, social and traditional media outreach, lobbying, and grassroots efforts.

“The airline industry is critical to our economy,” says Jean Medina, SVP communications at Airlines for America. The industry is the source of 10 million jobs, she adds.

Medina expects a tough battle ahead to get lawmakers to reduce taxes on the industry, given that the government is looking for new funding sources. However, she says the fight is necessary. “Our tax burden already exceeds that of alcohol and tobacco and those products' tax rates are meant to be a discouragement to people,” she explains. “If you decrease demand for airline services that means fewer flights, which equates to fewer jobs.”

Continued support
Others in the travel industry will continue to support efforts that lead to a smart visa policy, says Kathleen Matthews, EVP of global communications and public affairs at Marriott International.

Matthews notes that President Obama, the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Commerce Department have been supportive of a smart travel and tourism strategy to create new jobs and exports through robust international travel.

In January 2012, President Obama announced plans to make it easier for international visitors to travel to the US, partly by accelerating the visa process for travelers from China and Brazil.

“Given his support in his first term, we look forward to maintaining momentum on these issues,” Matthews adds.

Another issue she expects the hospitality industry to push for is immigration reform. Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations estimates that out of an estimated 7.2 million illegal immigrant workers in the US, about 17% work in the hospitality industry. 

But it's not just travel-related industries that want immigration reform, says Johanna Schneider, MD of Burson-Marsteller's DC office.

Many of her corporate clients want an expansion of visa programs for science and engineering candidates. 

“There are not enough graduates in the US in these fields,” says Schneider. Her clients are concerned about a cap for the H1B program, a visa that permits foreign nationals to work in the US for a temporary period, which fills up quickly each year and prohibits firms from maintaining the talent levels they need to innovate.

Another major communications focus in 2013 is the energy sector. The trade group, Alliance to Save Energy, formed the bipartisan Alliance Commission on National Energy Efficiency Policy last year with the goal of suggesting policies that will double US energy productivity by the year 2030.

If the US is able to achieve the commission's suggested goal, it says the country will be competitive with other high-energy productive nations around the world. 

Bipartisan help
At the start of the year, the group, made up of people such as former New York Gov. George Pataki, Michael Eckhart, MD and global head of environmental finance and sustainability at Citigroup, and Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), will release a list of recommendations to Capitol Hill to get them on track to meeting the goal.

From a communications perspective, having such a mix of people will make it hard for either side of the political aisle to think the panel's ideas are biased, says Kateri Callahan, president of the Alliance to Save Energy.

“The other thing we believe helps us tremendously is that the people involved are credible,” she adds.

The trade group has hired GolinHarris to support the effort. A few weeks out from the release of the recommendations, the agency was developing messages to get the word out. “It's the right time and place for this commission,” says Michael Schmidt, an SVP at the firm. “Lawmakers have already agreed that efficiency should be an element of national energy policy.” 

The challenge going forward will be to make sure the voices of clients are heard as various sectors try to push their agendas in the coming weeks, he adds.

Global warming is also likely to be a key focus for the administration going forward, according to Jamie Moeller, MD of global public affairs at Ogilvy Public Relations.

“When Obama ran for president in 2008 it was a large part of his plan of things to address, but nothing legislatively has happened,” he says.

Delivering healthcare
Thanks in part to the Affordable Care Act, now more than ever, the federal government is involved in the healthcare delivery system. Already, pharmaceutical companies must engage the US Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid to get their products approved and reimbursed. But they also need to get patient advocacy groups and key members of Congress on their side, says Al Jackson, head of Chandler Chicco's DC office.

“If you're not making the case for the launch of a new drug in DC you're not going to be successful. You need to say why your product is different and better than what's out there and why patients need it.” 

From an outreach perspective, he expects the Obama administration and other lawmakers to continue to utilize a new trend that combines social media and data analytics to better focus messaging to certain individuals. During his campaign, Obama hired five times more data analysts than in 2008 and utilized a single database merging information from polls, fundraisers, and consumer databases versus multiple unlinked databases. These tactics are believed to have played a huge part in his re-election.

Firms such as Chandler Chicco plan to use the new year to emphasize to clients the importance of talking to Washington stakeholders when trying to get new drugs in the hands of consumers. 

A few firms feel clients will likely try to avoid Capitol Hill altogether and push for regulatory changes at various federal agencies. 

“Getting an issue through Capitol Hill will be slow, but federal agencies have the ability to act now,” says Michael Robinson, an EVP at Levick Strategic communications. But if organizations can get enough support for a viewpoint on a policy they have a high chance of getting their preferred outcome, he adds.

All eyes are now on Capitol Hill to see if initial optimism will result in productive movement on the policy and legislative fronts.

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