Public Affairs Roundtable: The path to victory in 2016 [Extended]

Multi-billion dollar election campaigns, the evolution of data and social, race relations, and the Press Pool all came under the microscope at this FleishmanHillard-hosted roundtable discussion in Washington, DC.

Top row (l-r):
-Lou Hutchinson, VP and chief revenue officer, WGL and Washington Gas
-B.R. McConnon, chairman and CEO, DDC
Middle row (l-r)
-Dan Jaffe, group EVP, government relations, Association of National Advertisers
-Janaye Ingram, national executive director, National Action Network
-Drew Maloney, VP of government and external affairs, Hess Corp.
Bottom row (l-r)
-Kris Balderston, GM, Washington office, FleishmanHillard
-Tom Sheridan, president, Sheridan Group
-Shana Glickfield, partner, Beekeeper Group
-Kara Gerhardt Ross, VP, global strategic comms, UPS
-Nick Ragone, CCO, Ascension

White House race
Gideon Fidelzeid (PRWeek):
What unique factors will emerge during the 2016 campaign?

Kris Balderston (FleishmanHillard): In every campaign something new happens that changes our business. The multiple new ways to get your message out will be a key factor, of course, but a major change from previous campaigns is the money. The 1992 Clinton campaign raised $61 million, followed by George Bush at $58 million and Ross Perot at $57 million. Today we’re talking about $1.5 billion to $2 billion for each major party. There are independent funders now for each of the campaigns, particularly on the Republican side.

You’re going to see a very unpredictable situation where someone could have left the race early on before, but funds are such now that they can run until the convention. On the GOP side, where it’s more wide open, that will be a huge factor.

On the policy side, the inequitable distribution of wealth in this country is a huge issue both parties are focused on now.

Lou Hutchinson (WGL and Washington Gas): Another issue that will surely come up is our current status as it relates to macro-economic recovery and the candidates’ plans to continue with the current recovery and growth.

One issue that might be neutralized in this election is big data. Both sides will clearly rely on it heavily, so I see other factors being differentiators.

Tom Sheridan (The Sheridan Group): Micro-targeting will be key to where this election goes. Gathering data on very specific groups of voters is something President Obama touched on in 2012. It will be very different and much more finite this election cycle.

Furthermore, the persuasiveness of TV ads is diminishing a bit as people flock to social media to talk about candidates. It’s an opportunity to move small groups of voters in very profound ways. Moreover, big-money spending could actually be undone because big money goes to TV, radio, and newspapers and a large segment of the population, particularly Millennials, will not be paying as much attention to those things. Social media is the great equalizer for those who don’t have Koch Brothers budgets.

Janaye Ingram (National Action Network [NAN]): Sticking with Millennials, they want to see candidates who are "in touch." That often refers to social media use. At one point, you would see politicians kissing babies. That was a way to show they relate to every person. Today it’s things such as selfies. Candidates who are not afraid to do something such as taking a selfie reveal themselves to be in touch on some level.

A major focus for my organization will be underscoring the fact every person’s vote counts. That might seem obvious, but as more and more money gets spent on campaigns, many individuals feel as if their vote counts for less.

On the policy side, it will be telling to see how candidates address the issues of criminal justice reform and policing in the US, particularly in lower-income communities.

Kara Gerhardt Ross (UPS): We’ve already seen candidates expand their social media use to incorporate Instagram and Snapchat. New tools will continue to be in play as candidates try reaching new audiences. Of particular interest will be the convergence of super PACs and 24/7 social media that will certainly be a major factor that could wield even more influence than the campaigns themselves, particularly when talking to an older audience.

B.R. McConnon (DDC): Going back to the money, a major shift has occurred to where two-thirds of spending now comes from outside organizations. And it’s important to note that these outside entities, such as the Kochs, are spending their money on new technologies. They’re not only running direct mail and TV spots.

Drew Maloney (Hess): This may be the first election where the campaigns don’t control the messages, the super PACs do. These groups will have more money than the actual campaigns. And it’s funny that we arrived at this place because of campaign finance reform.

A major issue will also be the rise of populism on both the left and the right and what that means for corporate America. With Elizabeth Warren pulling Hillary Clinton to the left on an anti-Wall Street message, you also have some on the right who have a very similar libertarian message. You have to wonder what that will mean for the future of corporate communications.

Nick Ragone (Ascension): What will make this election unique, though, is the asymmetry of the two parties. This is a very rare instance where an incumbent isn’t running, but yet one party basically has an uncontested primary, unless you think Bernie Sanders will light it up. Is that good or bad for Clinton? Time will tell.

The demographics of this country have shifted dramatically, as well, and they work decidedly against Republicans at the presidential level. At the congressional level, this works to their advantage because of what state legislatures have done in redistricting. But at the presidential level, it’s really difficult for Republicans to win a majority if you look at where the numbers are.

America’s role in the world, which has taken a bit of a backseat, has become a major issue again. President Obama has charted a new direction for the US in the world and that will play a key role in the Clinton campaign. The GOP, in fact, would be wise to make the campaign a referendum on that because it’s an issue where there is a lot of confusion. The president has struggled at times with articulating, defining, and executing America’s role in the world. To the extent that Hillary Clinton is responsible for some of that will make it an important dynamic in the race.

Dan Jaffe (Association of National Advertisers [ANA]): As the race for the White House maintains mass attention, we will also have an extremely contested election at the Senate level because the Democrats are going to try to retake it by winning seats currently held by the GOP.

It’s also important to remember the Olympics will be going on in the heat of the race. The broadcast media will be in a major crunch at that point. For the ad industry, availability is a challenge in the most hotly contested states.

The Supreme Court will also have a huge impact on this campaign as it nears major decisions on Obamacare and the definition of marriage.

In addition, ICANN [the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers] announced earlier this year that more than 500 new generic top-level domain registries are now operational and offering domain name registrations. That is up from 22 in October 2013. There are also 4 million-plus secondary domain names. This opens up numerous possibilities for troubling domain names against any candidate. And this just keeps proliferating. This is something everyone involved in the campaign will have to figure out how to manage.

Shana Glickfield (Beekeeper Group): Storytelling remains at the core of any campaign. The added challenge now is ensuring you have a narrative that will sustain for two-plus years in an environment that is very uncontrolled. It will become more important than ever to motivate people at the grassroots level to go out there and get people to vote. At the end of the day, you have to get people to the polls – and efforts to do so start a couple of years before Election Day, though they certainly must intensify in those couple of months just prior to it.

Social success
Fidelzeid (PRWeek):
How do you see candidates using social media in this upcoming election? Who is excelling? Where is progress still needed?

McConnon (DDC): In terms of acquiring data and listening, there’s no doubt great strides have been made into gaining insights into where audiences are and what they are truly thinking. Mastering outbound communications is where much progress still needs to be made and it is really in the hands of the individual candidate.

Sheridan (Sheridan): We’re all trying to figure out the secret sauce of Millennial activism. It starts with realizing that YouTube celebrities play a bigger role in helping them form opinions than any other source. New media platforms have created a whole new group of validators.

Between now and 2050, 81 million Millennials will vote. They will actually control the outcome of our civil society for generations to come. And they are all forming and validating their opinions in totally different places with completely different influencers. And we are all still very much trying to figure it out. Needless to say, candidates who figure it out fastest will have a huge leg up.

Balderston (Fleishman): President Obama seems ahead of the curve on this, mainly because he is authentic about it. He’s very comfortable in this new world and it shows. I’m not sure a lot of candidates can do that.

It’s also worth noting how youthful campaigns are becoming. Just look at who is being hired to work on them. They are recruiting talent from high schools.

Sheridan (Sheridan): Rand Paul might be the most interesting candidate in this regard. He legitimately has a generation of people who follow him in new media that nobody else matches. His use of social media is more advanced than any other candidate.

Ragone (Ascension): It will be interesting to see how the Clinton campaign navigates this space, as she doesn’t have a serious primary foe and social media, as well as traditional media, will take it upon itself to act as a type of proxy for a primary. Every campaign has a balloon narrative. Social media will be used as a way to puncture the balloon and get candidate off their narrative.

For example, Jeb Bush can give a great hour-and-a-half speech, but it’s three sentences in that speech about how his foreign policy differs from his brother’s that will light up social media. Just like that, you’ve lost the narrative.

Maloney (Hess): Social media is seen as the great equalizer to big spending, but it actually takes a tremendous amount of resources to use it effectively. It takes great resource to engage with people and facilitate the back and forth that is the foundation of social media. If you are truly engaging 24-7, you need a team of people doing it. The presidential campaigns that are not as well funded will not have the capacity to match what the bigger campaigns can do. Deciding how much resource to put into social media response and engagement is one of the tougher decisions to make.

Hutchinson (WGL): Big data and social media will become increasingly integrated. It’s going to be far more sophisticated, almost NSA-like, in terms of analysis and response as compared to previous campaigns. And this will help immensely with micro-targeting.

Ingram (NAN): There is a danger, though, if things become too automated. If I were to identify a politician who really gets social media it would be Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ). He has developed a large Twitter following because he responds to people in a way that is not at all automated. You could tell responses are his own and not from some staffer.

Granted, this has waned a bit since he entered the Senate. This might be an impossible scenario for a presidential candidate. However, it does highlight the dangers of thinking an automated response can possibly have the same resonance as a personal, authentic one.

Glickfield (Beekeeper): The individuals or organizations that are most successful at social media have the authenticity down, but they also get the real-time interaction. They get the humor. They use humor. They find ways to be relatable. So even if you’re tweeting with a candidate or major organizations and you know it’s not actually the candidate or CEO responding to you, as long as you’re relatable in real-time and can let your hair hang down in a way that most organizations or presidential candidates probably won’t be comfortable with, you will resonate on social media.

Ross (UPS): With newspaper readership and network-news viewership declining, people are obviously choosing to get their news from varied and multiple sources. In turn, this poses an even greater challenge to campaigns to get targeted messaging to the right voters.

However, while social media is vitally important, the mainstream media still sets the narrative and tone for the campaigns. Candidates cannot simply circumvent mainstream media and only use social media. They’ll end up being an asterisk in the outcome if they do that.

McConnon (DDC): Big data enters the conversation again. It tracks media consumption patterns down to a frightening degree of accuracy. Much more so than even a few years ago, campaigns can tell with a great degree of specificity where people are spending their time across all platforms – and for how long. From there, you can plan your strategies accordingly.

Taking a stand
Fidelzeid (PRWeek):
How can corporations best determine when they should and should not take a definitive position on a key public affairs issue?

Ragone (Ascension): General rule of thumb: if the issue directly intersects with your ability to do business, you have to take a vocal and public viewpoint. In fact, you should take a leadership position in such issues. For us, matters such as the Affordable Care Act, Medicaid expansion, and generic pricing come to mind. We have a responsibility and obligation to speak out in a way that protects the interests of the people to whom we deliver care.

Fidelzeid (PRWeek): And what about issues not so obviously related to the business?

Sheridan (Sheridan): Corporations are definitely starting to realize the importance of being proactive. Smart companies understand the need to get in front of situations and not wait to react. The NFL, for example, would have been so much better off working with domestic violence professionals well ahead of all the recent issues that came out.

If Facebook could get ahead of cyber bullying before the next suicide happens, it would be so smart and cost effective. Getting out in front actually protects organizations.

Ragone (Ascension): There is a big difference between reacting to where the winds of change are going and actually getting in front of the winds of change. Purchasing decisions are increasingly being made based on how consumers feel about a company. For that reason alone, corporations need to think about issues differently.

Ingram (NAN): One way for a company to get ahead in this regard is to look at their own employees and see what issues are important to them. Starbucks’ Race Together campaign was the result of an internal survey of where employees felt the company was on diversity. The effort did not quite work out, but it does offer an example of a company trying to get ahead of an issue based on what their employees were telling it. If nothing else, that makes good business sense.

Hutchinson (WGL): As much as 15 or 20 years ago, we really focused on the issue of poverty. We partnered with several entities. Today, corporations are increasingly moving toward private-public and public-public partnerships in order to proactively address some of those issues and not take the burden on themselves. They don’t quite have the expertise to deal with the level of advocacy that a National Action Network might have, but to the extent they’re able to partner with those entities to deal with some of those issues in the community they are far more effective.

Balderston (Fleishman): What Lou is talking about represents the new way to solve problems. No one sector can solve these problems alone. Shared value is a huge concept gaining momentum now.

While I was at the State Department, we talked about smart power. Every corporation, NGO, and foundation must have a smart power strategy where they really look at their assets and liabilities. Partnerships are not about money anymore. They’re about sharing intellectual property, networks, ideas, and values. Furthermore, corporations, in particular, are increasingly coming together with other entities to try and solve problems without necessarily having the full power of government behind them.

Jaffe (ANA): Authenticity is crucial in this discussion. If your behavior is not congruent with what you’re saying, people will notice. And remember: silence is also a position. Not stepping up in certain situations will be noticed, too.

Maloney (Hess): You can’t just chime in on an issue for political expediency. If you’re going to engage and be supportive of a particular issue, you must put the weight of the company behind it.

Ross (UPS): Perspective, context, and response proportionality are all key considerations. Executives will often want to come out and make a statement right away, but sometimes things can be addressed effectively with a more junior spokesperson on a tweet or blog.

Baltimore and beyond
Fidelzeid (PRWeek):
Recent events in Baltimore bring into focus one of the most sensitive issues out there – race relations. What are the keys to messaging around a subject that is so important, so emotional, and, frankly, so divisive?

Ingram (NAN): To start, Starbucks deserves credit for its willingness to step up and talk about race in America. In terms of what is happening in Baltimore – and many other cities – companies must be honest and authentic in their responses. Don’t just say what you think is politically correct. And don’t be silent. What does that say to your employees, many of whom likely feel strongly about it?

When companies think about such issues, it leads to a larger question about diversity practices. On the surface, that might seem unconnected, but what happened in Baltimore, Ferguson, MO, and other cities all goes back to the lack of opportunity for people in those areas, so it is related. If companies really want to address what happened in Baltimore, addressing the achievement gap that exists for young people of color would be a good place to start. It need not be a statement about the situations with the police. It can very well be a statement – followed by action – on how we address the inequities that exist in our country.

Ragone (Ascension): We have 1,200 associates in St. Louis, 400 of them are five minutes from Ferguson. We didn’t feel as if we needed to weigh in other than to just ask for healing in our community. Of course, we donated tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of supplies because in some of those areas mothers couldn’t get baby formula and diapers.

Helping the community heal is vital, but equally so is getting to the underlying causes. To that end, we’ve taken a very active approach with a fairly new nonprofit in St. Louis to reduce criminal recidivism. If you look at the percentage of criminal population, people that have been jailed for a certain number of years, the recidivism rates are huge – 70% or 80%. If you can lower those by job training, education, opportunity when they get out, and mentoring, it dramatically impacts the community. You want to be judged by what you do in your community, not what you say. In Baltimore, where we have a big hospital system, St. Agnes, we took a similar approach.

Companies have a huge responsibility in such instances. The immediate one is to help its community heal. Longer-term, it’s to get to the root of the problem and do something to rectify it.

Hutchinson (WGL): Actions speak louder than words, no doubt. The first step for organizations is to identify what role they can play in those different areas that contributes to a solution.

Diversity means different things to different entities. In many cases, diversity is primarily driven by the bottom-line benefit, as opposed to dealing with the day-to-day issues employees face and the challenges they encounter in having an open conversation about it. Companies have to get to that latter point.

Sheridan (Sheridan): I’m a social worker by profession. Based on the community reaction, I truly saw Baltimore as less of a riot and more of a revolution. Those myriad pictures of people truly connecting to their community really inspired me.

The concerning part is that we tend to view these situations as one-offs. We’ll solve this one problem and be done with it. What we really need is a national commitment to solve these issues because they are not one-offs. And there truly are fairly simple solutions where real hope and progress can be achieved.

Glickfield (Beekeeper): Revolution is truly the right word to use here, but not necessarily in terms of solutions, but rather that instances such as Baltimore are forcing crucial conversations to be had about what we want for our country.

Bringing it back to our industry, we will be looking at a minority-majority America very soon. We are unprepared for that, particularly as we look at who is making our messaging decisions. Are we really being inclusive or are we just talking in circles?

Ross (UPS): I was working in the White House when President Clinton launched the One America program, a race initiative to start a national dialogue. We need something like that again. My company recently appointed a chief diversity officer and we are having those discussions internally.

And as Kris mentioned earlier, these efforts have to be across the spectrum. Everybody has to partner. We’re working with the Department of Labor on initiatives for apprenticeships, training, and job placement. We’re also a part of the Joining Forces initiative to help veterans take the skills they’ve learned in the armed forces and get jobs in the private sector.

Balderston (Fleishman): I spent a lot of time outside the US while at the State Department. Two weeks out of every month. In that time I learned the greatest asset the US possesses is its diversity. One out of five Americans are first or second generation from another country. We absolutely have the ability to work together.

I am also a big believer in stepping back from time to time to truly ponder exactly what it is we are doing. I think back to Patricia Arquette’s Oscars speech where she called for wage and gender equality. Upon hearing that, I did a little survey in my office. I discovered that we are actually measuring up well on that front, but it was very important I took that step to ensure it. I’m in a position where I can do something about this, so it is my responsibility to take that action and make sure of it. I strongly recommend every person of authority in their organizations take similar temperature checks. But it all starts with having these sometimes-uncomfortable conversations.

Preparing for power shift
Fidelzeid (PRWeek):
What are the particular challenges to public affairs pros during this time where the current administration is nearing its certain conclusion?

Sheridan (Sheridan): I was part of a larger group that started the social innovation movement that 2008 presidential candidate Barack Obama fully bought into. In 2009, the Serve America Act was signed into law. It moved the needle on national service laws and volunteerism. However, we’ve been unable to penetrate long-term policy on Capitol Hill and the administration now isn’t really embracing this as a legacy item. So we are now laser focused on how to make ourselves relevant to the next administration, regardless of which party wins the White House. It’s a huge challenge.

Of course, with other agendas the end of an administration can be a particularly good time to plant the seeds for truly transformative issues. President Clinton was quite late to the global AIDS epidemic, but he got there and moved it from a global health challenge to a national security issue. He got people to seriously think about how to deal with it. And it provided something the Bush administration could pick up. But the movement got truly started during a period where the administration is less concerned with political risks. Big ideas with transformative policy opportunities can actually take root in the end of administrations.

Ross (UPS): UPS is a huge advocate for trade. It seems now is a particularly good time for this issue as President Obama is likely to focus on this.

Of course, transportation is another issue of great importance to UPS. Everyone realizes we need to fix our rails, bridges, roads, and airports. There is even bipartisan agreement, but nobody is willing to make those tough decisions because we’re in such gridlock. Unfortunately, it appears this issue is going to fall back into presidential politics.

Jaffe (ANA): You can’t really have this conversation without considering the fact Republicans now run both the House and Senate. It really comes down to how willing they are to work with the administration and vice versa. In truth, you have a very small window to get movement on key issues because very little movement is likely to happen once the full election gets rolling.

On the positive side, though, the GOP is also very interested in getting things done. They can’t point to Democrats as the sole cause of gridlock.

One issue to keep an eye on is tax reform, which is particularly significant to my industry because within that reform is a radical proposal to amortize advertising, which would actually make it dramatically more expensive. It would impact the entire marketing arena. Things can move in the next five or six months, but after than we start to run out of time.

Both sides have an interest. President Obama certainly is thinking about his legacy. Republicans want to show they can really manage things and they hope that will translate into showing why they merit the presidency. Hopefully that leads to some important things coming to fruition.

Maloney (Hess): Big accomplishments between Congress and the White House will probably be few between now and the end of the current administration. However, crisis always lends itself to getting some things accomplished. You just never know when that’s going to happen. A lot of efforts now will shift to educating the presidential and Senate candidates moving into the next election and trying to influence that debate as it moves forward.

Coming to America
Fidelzeid (PRWeek):
What is the key to an effective public affairs strategy for a foreign country or foreign-based organization entering the US?

Balderston (Fleishman): You must be Washington-focused. You have to be here. Cultural diplomacy is very important, building those trusted networks. Singapore has done some very interesting work with its education system, some of which is being replicated around the country. Its embassy has really gotten out there on the ground in the US to let people know what they are doing and who they are.

Ragone (Ascension): Understanding our process of government is a key first step. We might assume they do, but you can see in the foreign policy debates we have when working with other governments that it’s not easy to fully grasp how other systems work.

The benefit foreign entities have, though, is that the US truly has the most transparent government around. The opportunity to learn how things get done here, how deals get made, the right and wrong ways to accomplish goals are all there.

Ross (UPS): Following up on Nick’s comments, foreign entities need to meet with our government, which is an opportunity they certainly have available to them. Beyond that, though, you need to hire locally. You need to become part of the community. When UPS expands into other countries, we certainly do that. It’s the best way for you to understand another country’s culture. Moreover, it’s invaluable to work side by side with the government of that country on projects that are important to them. It shows you’re investing in them and are in it for the long term.

McConnon (DDC): In the US, it’s more important than it might be in other countries to work with local businesses, perhaps even more so than working with government. It goes beyond Washington. Foreign entities need to go into the states and cities where they are investing to make sure and create those relationships ahead of any problems they might encounter. This is particularly important when you are involved in public-private partnerships that are going to run municipal functions or state municipal functions.

Jaffe (ANA): The Internet has created a truly international marketplace, so even an organization such as ours, whose members are primarily US-based and US-focused, works multi-nationally. The most important thing is to understand the cultural differences between the US and your nation. There are significant societal differences. For example, how different countries view privacy issues and the like. You have to work with local experts to gain that insight, just as US-based entities must do when venturing abroad.

Glickfield (Beekeeper): When we advise multinational clients, we really focus on making sure the message is cohesive and consistent globally. A foreign entity entering the US should certainly adhere to that.

Sheridan (Sheridan): I’ll look at this from the standpoint of foreign leaders or individuals who have done inspiring work that has really left a mark on US audiences. In almost every case, it goes back to values.

I worked on the campaign started by Bono and Bobby Shriver a number of years ago on the (Product) RED project to engage the private sector in raising awareness and funds to help eliminate HIV/AIDS in Africa. Frankly, we were concerned that this Irish rock star, who tended to get preachy, would come to America and talk about how we should be caring for babies and poor people in Africa.

Despite the obviously important message, we felt it might not be received well. However, our worries proved totally unfounded. He struck a chord with Americans by connecting with something they valued. Americans like the idea of a challenge that could be confronted. Americans ultimately connect to something that makes them feel good about themselves and their own values.

It goes to authenticity. Look no further than Pope Francis. He has effectively changed people’s views on the world because what he says rings true, it rings authentic, to almost everyone, whether Catholic, or not.

Hutchinson (WGL): Our company is mostly regional, but we have started to work with India to the point where we are now providing a third of the country’s gas through resources here. As we enter that country, we look very carefully at the regulatory challenges at the federal, state, and local levels. As we move to address issues in India, we must take a hard look at how energy is impacting not only that country, but the entire region.

How the US is viewed globally in terms of energy is dramatically different from five years ago. We are no longer as dependent on foreign resources, as there are a plethora of them domestically now. We now have to concern ourselves with how we are viewed elsewhere in the world as a significant portion of our business now supplies gas to India. We must also focus on the political challenges that will come up in India and the surrounding region.

Our situation is an example of what foreign entities would encounter when they enter the US in a similar capacity.

Ingram (NAN): The type of organization I represent will lend itself to a vastly different perspective on this topic, but I will note we often get approached by foreign governments and organizations to talk about how we deal with civil rights in the US. They are very interested to engage us and learn how we go about changing laws and the like.

Maloney (Hess): While transparency and trust are words used globally, foreign entities will quickly learn that they are both particularly important in terms of building relationship here. And this obviously takes time and nurturing. You cannot expect to come here and fix a problem immediately. You have to be committed to it.

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