Public Affairs Roundtable: Search for common ground

Navigating gridlock, overcoming legislative challenges, and assessing this administration's outreach efforts were top of the agenda as industry leaders gathered at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, for this FleishmanHillard-hosted roundtable.

-Kathleen Ambrose, SVP of government affairs, Siemens
-Kris Balderston, GM, Washington office, FleishmanHillard
-Tom Collamore, SVP of communications and strategy, US Chamber of Commerce
-Jon Haber, adjunct professor, public affairs, Georgetown University
-John Hishta, SVP of campaigns, AARP
-William McCarren, executive director, National Press Club
-Hilary Rosen, MD, SKDKnickerbocker
-Douglas Smith, EVP and GM, Washington office, MWW
-Julian Teixeira, director of communications, National Council of La Raza

An evolving discipline
Frank Washkuch
(PRWeek): How has the definition of public affairs evolved?

Kris Balderston (FleishmanHillard): It is far more global and solutions-oriented. It is bringing in new technologies. At the State Department, we often spoke about "the power to convene," so public affairs is more collaborative. It’s not necessarily who you know, but how many people you know and how many different players are in a particular issue you can solve.

John Hishta (AARP): Tactics are changing rapidly, particularly as it relates to technology. It’s ultimately about convincing some person or entity to make a decision about an issue and getting the public engaged in that process to help push it one way or another.

Tom Collamore (US Chamber of Commerce): Public affairs is the positioning of your product, in our case ideas and the brand. Relationships, alliances, and networks are as important as ever, as is having a strategy of constructive engagement. 

Kathleen Ambrose (Siemens): I’m from an industrial conglomerate with 400,000 people in 190 countries. To me, public affairs is a complete misnomer. It is an amalgam of different departments with particularly different agendas and metrics by which they are measured.

Douglas Smith (MWW): If government relations and PR had a child, that kid would be public affairs. Today, neither the traditional government relations nor PR approaches are working as effectively as they used to. As we watch international conglomerates battle, particularly in the federal space as they seek contracts, it’s a different way of doing business. Public affairs brings the tactics you need in each.

William McCarren (National Press Club): We must think about how the public has changed over the years. We’re now dealing with issues that were not on the table before and expanding the field for what that means. That will be a challenge to meet with technology and messaging.

Julian Teixeira (National Council of La Raza): You used to do public affairs at the national office and dealt with which government entity you wanted to change. Social media has enabled us to get more grassroots involvement into the public affairs space.

Jon Haber (Georgetown): It used to be about how we shape legislation, which is still important. Now we think about regulation, positioning clients, and how to sell to the federal government. It is also impacting corporate reputation.

There was a time when business’ only purpose was to make money for shareholders. Now CEOs come to Washington thinking about how to use issues to talk to customers to show what kind of business it is.

Legislative challenges
(PRWeek): Lyndon Johnson remains widely admired for getting civil rights legislation passed 50 years ago. Government today is largely criticized for not being nearly as effective in passing legislation. Why has it gotten so difficult?

Collamore (Chamber of Commerce): The increased polarization in DC has contributed – and both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue own this. It’s systemic.

In some issues the Chamber is tackling, we seek the common ground and to do the unexpected. For example, no one expected us to wade into the immigration debate the way we have. It’s somewhat counterintuitive to most of our political alliances. However, you cannot get compromise or progress unless you have a relationship. Trust, which we are frankly short on right now, comes from that.

Ambrose (Siemens): If you take the human element as the organizing principle for what’s missing in DC, it’s not just relationships. It’s the credibility of the individuals with whom you’re trying to build a relationship. By gerrymandering the districts, we’ve eliminated the option of having people who are truly elected [for the best reasons]. The best officials have a solid background in the public policymaking apparatus and understand the complexity of the problems. That gives you the credibility for someone to want to work with you, regardless of party.

Hishta (AARP): Three major occurrences have put us here. The first was the 2000 Bush/Gore election. That changed the nature of this town in terms of trust and credibility. Second, the healthcare debate completely polarized Washington. Third, there are no moderate Democrats or Republicans left. They have philosophically aligned to where you have a liberal and a conservative party.

With all this, reaching compromise and having leaders step up is difficult, particularly when success is sometimes defined by lack of legislation passed.

Teixeira (La Raza): There are 55 million Latinos in the US, with 190,000 born every year. We’re not all immigrants. That’s a huge electorate. Still, a lot of people are not taking this seriously and are losing the reality element of what the US is becoming.

Smith (MWW): To quote Rahm Emanuel, mayor of Chicago, a good crisis is a good time to take advantage of something. The civil rights movement was a great example. In the wake of President Kennedy’s assassination, Lyndon Johnson saw an opportunity to move a piece of legislation that had stalled.

A challenge in this era of Twitter and blogs is people are terrified to move briskly in any direction because they’re afraid of what will come up.

Haber (Georgetown): Johnson served at a very different time and was able to push a piece of legislation that took many years to move. Now, if anybody gives a speech on the House floor, it’s immediately picked up and it goes into a 30-second attack advertisement on the other side.

There’s also a convergence of politics and public affairs. I come from a world where it is now easier to vilify your opponent than beat them on an issue. The political world has also brought the concept of endless campaigns and the ability to knock people out to win legislation.

Balderston (Fleishman): Healthcare legislation is a huge accomplishment people will look back on in 10 to 20 years the way we do the Civil Rights Act. There was leadership in pushing for healthcare.

Uncommon alliances are a key part of the new public affairs. I recall a 10-year period when Sens. George Mitchell (D-ME) and Bob Dole (R-KS) would go in the back room, argue for two weeks on the floor, and something would come out of it. There isn’t the environment to get together now. The transactional, short-term structure we have created has hurt long-term relationships.

Collamore (Chamber of Commerce): President Reagan used to take homework up to the residence and come back with pages of handwritten notes of his calls to Congress – Republicans and Democrats – on every issue. Congressional leadership held bipartisan meetings in the Cabinet room every week for seven and a half years. That has been lost.

Hilary Rosen (SKDKnickerbocker): I talk less about politics with clients and more about their personal engagement. It’s a responsibility of a much broader community than just Congress. We look at how business leaders work with and engage their employees on a public affairs agenda. The key is to have everyone feel more connected to the public interest, as well as the private interest of their business. We must look beyond traditional players and find other allies, starting with employees.

Eye on the administration

Bloomberg News’ White House correspondent Margaret Talev spoke to PRWeek news editor Frank Washkuch prior to the roundtable about the unknown aspects of her job, covering a presidential election, and how on-the-scene reporting has evolved in the social media age. Below are some key takeaways:

•Day in the life of a White House correspondent
A lot of the time, our day is incredibly less glamorous than you think it would be. A lot of it is looking at the schedule and figuring out what to do. But sometimes, whether it’s on a foreign trip or whether it’s a big domestic event happening, it can get very exciting. My job is sort of all three things at once – incredibly mundane, incredibly exciting, and then a lot in between.

•White House press briefings
They are almost entirely theater. They are important because it is an opportunity to put the official voice of the White House on the record and answering any questions, but it’s not where you engage and have the sort of dialogue that helps you understand what’s going on.

•Social media’s impact
One of the biggest changes has been the White House’s ability to bypass the traditional media through social networking. Of course, we’re all playing in that water, too. Social networking has made everything very visual, niche, and in the moment. However, some stories – whether it’s the financial crisis of 2008 or years-long initiatives such as healthcare – are full of nuance, which is hard to capture on Twitter and Facebook.

•The presidential elections
The 2012 election was so different from that of 2008. Obama was new in 2008. It was the year when social media began to really innovate elections. The candidate in 2012 was the economy. The 2016 election may be closer to 2008 in the sense it can be a bit more about the candidates and innovation.

•Partisanship in Washington
Partisanship has always been a factor in this town. What’s changed is you just don’t see Democrats and Republicans socializing that much with each other. That makes it difficult to have any kind of good faith across the aisle. It also makes it difficult to do big things, such as welfare reform. It’s to the point now where it has really affected Congress’ credibility levels.

Click here for more from Talev on the focal points of news delivery and operating in an age of the never-ending campaign.

The gridlock effect
(PRWeek): How can continuing gridlock in Washington be navigated most effectively?

Balderston (Fleishman): We have all seen the evolution from strategic philanthropy to corporate responsibility to creating shared value. At the State Department, we created the Office of Global Partnerships. We brought in $500 million trying to find the sweet spot between what people wanted to do around the world. You must find that shared value to encourage people to work together.

Hishta (AARP): You must be patient when it comes to some bigger issues. Everybody looks back to the days of Lyndon Johnson, but [President Harry] Truman was the first to sponsor Medicare legislation in 1946 – and it did not happen until 1965.

Even in this era, the president and Congress cut a deal on debt reduction. That was successful when you look back. Billions of dollars were taken out of the deficit. I’m not so sure there is this overriding gridlock that will stay around for the next five or 10 years.

Ambrose (Siemens): I agree there is a normal timeframe [for things to get done]. However, the media puts something out every hour or sooner. People tweet and news comes out sooner. This all presses the concept that something must be accomplished at 9 o’clock and then a new thing at 11 o’clock, but the system of government is set up so that when you want to move big things, it takes a lot to bring the country and political leaders together.

Sometimes we’ll get there later rather than sooner, but it’s OK as long as there’s integrity in the system.

Rosen (SKD): From a public affairs perspective, it is hard to think about big strategies to actually move large things. There is room for smaller things that don’t go to polarization or partisanship.

Moreover, big things take a long time, but narratives set in on each of those early. Sometimes they get cemented quickly, so it’s overcoming those hurdles. The issue is that the longer things take, the more likely bigger problems get cemented and it becomes harder to develop a fresher perspective.

Smith (MWW): The challenge Congress faces is most people in the electorate increasingly view it as not being part of the daily solutions they need. The more Congress continues to argue, the more people will tune it out and seek solutions themselves.

From the corporate perspective, the biggest issue for Fortune 100 companies is certainty. Even if a bad policy happens, they will look at the long term and come up with a new solution. A gridlocked Congress is doing the greatest disservice to the economy because big companies are slower to make major decisions due to not knowing what action to take.

McCarren (National Press Club): When you look for examples of overcoming gridlock, I recall an event where Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg appeared together. Their shared love of opera paved the way for a friendship.

There is no social interaction in Washington. People are not finding common interests to overcome some of the poison. Everything cannot get worked out over opera, of course, but finding the time to figure these things out is important.

The administration’s performance
(PRWeek): From a communications perspective, what have been this White House’s successes and shortcomings?

Teixeira (La Raza): It has reached out to the Latino community, taken this demographic’s growth seriously, listened to the issues, and is trying to create beneficial programs.

Haber (Georgetown): This administration has done some great things in terms of setting the tone of the debate. Sometimes we’re tougher on this White House than we ought to be. We forget other administrations have had communications challenges.

Balderston (Fleishman): We’re caught in the revolution of communications, so anybody occupying the White House will have challenges. There are also big expectations. On January 20, 2009, there was great optimism, but the reality of Washington hit hard and the president started from a difficult place. This White House has had successes in healthcare and bringing the economy back. It has taken risks and tried to go down new avenues in communications.

Rosen (SKD): When you have a communicator as great as the president, PR pros around him struggle as regards analytics. When is the right time to bring him out? What are the proper opportunities to use more of the tools around him? The added challenge in a political environment is the rapid-fire response, often pre-buttal as opposed to rebuttal.

In large degree, this White House has succeeded in communications as we saw with President Obama’s re-election, but much less so in moving Congress. It seems he has spent a lot less time talking to people in Washington and much more with communications strategies that take him outside DC.

Ambrose (Siemens): The administration’s healthcare communications strategy leaves me sad. I never saw them explain healthcare. Michelle Obama is extraordinary at explaining the healthcare system to military families. She could have described it to the rest of the country. The White House did not use that opportunity as a coalescing force. 

Rosen (SKD): This gets right to the challenge in our industry between earned and paid media. From the time healthcare legislation was pending in Congress to about six months before the effective date, something like $650 million was spent attacking it in paid advertising. And in favor of it – from organized labor, the few corporates that were supportive, and some pharma companies – was $90 million.

The White House was devoted to finding earned media opportunities. However, when you have that onslaught of paid media, it’s an extraordinary challenge. Moreover, there has never been the kind of paid media in favor of it that there was against it.

McCarren (National Press Club): With that much money spent on one side of a debate, you need earned media to work for you. There were mistakes in communications, but people don’t appreciate the number of legal actions taken against reporters. Subpoenas of phone records. Once you get into that, repair must be done and it’s delicate, difficult work. They’ve lost, not an ally, but a fair shake they might have gotten had they handled that better.

Rosen (SKD): The media covering politics today covers the process, but not the substance. I’m at CNN and can tell you maybe 80% of healthcare coverage was about the fight and 20% about the substance of what the changes meant. The media does not necessarily see its job as being the informer of policy choices, unless that’s the goal of its story.

Teixeira (La Raza): As regards healthcare, a lot of our English-language media interviews were about the website not being ready. On Spanish-language media, it was about what will this mean to the community? How do they register? It goes to the perspective.

When I craft a media plan, we look at that. For example, for the midterms and English-language media, we focus on the fact our vote will count. For Spanish-language media, the message is on the need to participate.

Smith (MWW): This administration has not been great at claiming success. I worked in the national security space, which had tremendous accomplishments. This White House got us out of two wars. The number of terrorists taken off the market is unbelievable. There are things you can’t discuss, of course, but it could have built up a lot more in the bank. And this isn’t about making the mistake President Bush did with the "Mission accomplished" sign. It’s about explaining to people why you’re better off.

Place for social media
(PRWeek): Where does social media fit into your strategy?

Ambrose (Siemens): From a pure government affairs perspective, members of Congress care about how many jobs we’re bringing to their district. For the bigger-picture issues, of course social media is a huge area we pay attention to. However, I have not found it specifically influencing a member of Congress to support something.

Smith (MWW): It permeates everything we do, but it’s as much about how we get the message out as how it is being received. The errant tweet or blog post is as much a story as what you were trying to get out there. With many of our clients, we inevitably make our money cleaning up messes from improper use.

McCarren (National Press Club): Social media is an audience expander. It becomes part of the experience no matter what business you’re in. It poses more risks, but also brings huge opportunities.

Teixeira (La Raza): It is a key influencing tool. Traditional media still plays a big role. TV helps inform the community and gets them to activate. Radio also has a huge impact on our community. We use traditional media to inform, social to cause action.

Haber (Georgetown): We sometimes forget social media didn’t really exist when Howard Dean ran for president 10 years ago. Facebook wasn’t there. YouTube didn’t exist. Obama had his nomination locked in before Twitter took hold. This whole area is evolving rapidly, but there’s sort of the blocking and tackling, which is digital. You have to relate the two. The most powerful digital communications tool is a well-crafted email that reaches your target audience. 

Balderston (Fleishman): Social media has allowed us to be more surgical and targeted in how we serve people and clients. It’s also an empowerment issue. A woman in Africa can use her phone to invest, save money, and find out what crops control her family budget. I was always amazed when I went to obscure places by how many people said, "I follow you on Twitter." Demographically, it is very powerful.

Rosen (SKD): We use it in various ways for clients – rapid response, building alliances, breaking news, and to connect with reporters. Journalists are very invested in their social profile and connecting with theirs is important. From an engagement perspective, we do a lot beyond Twitter. Facebook, Instagram, and Vine are much more effective when you want people to buy into a movement, come to an organization, or approve of what a company is doing.

Hishta (AARP): Social media affects everything you do, whether it be budgets, how you put together your advertising plan for digital versus traditional media, or how you communicate to certain audiences.

I’m fascinated how quickly things change. I’m not sure emails will exist in three years and that something else won’t come along. Five years ago, who would have thought everybody would have an iPad?

Collamore (Chamber of Commerce): It is a really important tool for reaching the new generation, younger employees, and even college students who have a very important voice.

For more from this roundtable, including thoughts on communicating to an increasingly diverse electorate, click here.

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in