Expecting the unexpected: How public affairs pros are bracing for a Trump presidency

"The way that policy has been made for a generation in Washington will be done," says one prominent DC-based agency leader.

(Image via Wikimedia Commons, By Michael Vadon - →This file has been extracted from another file: Donald Trump August 19, 2015.jpg, CC BY-SA 2.0)

The business world is coming to terms with the idea of Donald Trump in the Oval Office after the celebrity businessman unexpectedly won the U.S. presidential election over favored Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

It is not something executives were prepared for.

"In the last month or two, meetings with clients about the election typically started with the sentence, ‘President Clinton…’ Many companies assumed it was going to be a Clinton administration," says Pam Jenkins, president of Powell Tate. "So now they’re going to take the coming weeks to really assess what a Trump presidency means for their industries."

The only thing public affairs pros say they can predict with certainty for nearly every industry is uncertainty. "We should expect that the way that policy has been made for a generation in Washington will be done," says APCO Worldwide CEO Brad Staples.

Experts see opportunities for some sectors to shift the narrative on key issues in a more favorable direction. They also expect clients and agencies to reassess data gathering and interpretation in crafting their own public affairs strategies, given how many politicians, media, and pollsters failed to detect the populist groundswell that would propel Trump to victory.

"Election pollsters missed huge pockets of people and major themes; they missed the forest for the trees," Jenkins explains. "As a result, we will see a lot of introspection on how to assess public sentiment differently including, not just on elections, but policy issues for clients. To get a message right does take ability to measure what people think and feel among different segments of the population."

Ellen Moran, ‎EVP and GM of Hill+Knowlton Strategies’ Washington, DC, office, concurs that while companies have access to data from more sources than ever, this election illustrates the danger of misinterpreting or relying on too narrow a data set.

"I am not disparaging the advances made on the data side, but I think there is still no substitute for what you see on the ground," she says, adding that colleagues in the field could detect passion and strength for Trump. "What you see on the ground might actually inform how you can use data in different ways. And if you aren’t also using data to track what is happening with people who you’re not trying to persuade, you might miss something."

Al Jackson, EVP of public affairs for Spectrum, adds that if public affairs pros learn anything from this election, it’s the importance of building campaigns bottom-up.

"The obvious distrust of Washington that was embodied in Trump’s campaign reminds us movements are really bottom-up. It reminded us that as we develop programs for our clients, they really need to be grassroots efforts, not top-down," he says. "We have to keep that in mind as we create consensus around whatever it is we’re trying to accomplish for our clients."

Lobbying changes
Trump will be sworn into office on January 20, 2017, along with Vice President-elect Mike Pence. Their first 100 days will be crucial for clients in terms of forming their public affairs strategies, notes Marc Ginsberg, practice chair for public affairs and business diplomacy at Levick.

"That will give the business community a pretty good clue of the legislative and regulatory agenda of the Trump administration’s first six months, because it’s not like Trump has an ideological bent to go on; he has made it up as he’s gone along," he says. "We will not only see it in the appointments he makes but in his urgency to respond to his constituents. They will be looking for symbolic as well as substantive changes in the issues that propelled them to vote for him."

Given that an untested outsider is about to move into the White House—not to mention one who divided the Republican Party—strategic lobbying will be key.

"Not every Republican member of the House of Representatives and the Senate has sworn allegiance to the administration of Donald Trump; in fact, some were campaigning against him," explains Ginsberg. "The one thing about Trump is he doesn’t forget who is enemies are. I wouldn’t be surprised if he shows more empathy for Democrats that had been running against him than Republicans who he felt were undermining him."

Clients should also be mindful of potentially greater restrictions on lobbying under Trump’s presidency, notes Stephanie Lvovich, Edelman’s global chair of public affairs.

"He has said in the campaign that he wants to close the loophole in terms of making lobbying more restrictive, putting a ban on outgoing government officials from going into lobbying firms up to five years, a lifetime lobbying ban on officials from the administration who work for foreign governments, and campaign finance reform," she says. "Whether he follows through on that, I don’t know."

What is more certain is that despite campaign-trail promises to "drain the swamp" of Washington insiders, several well-known lobbyists are working on Trump’s transition team, according to The New York Times.

Disruption in commercial trade, health care
Many businesses see positives in a Trump win because a Republican-controlled government will likely reduce industry regulation and support free market incentives. Yet public affairs pros warn industries heavily reliant on trade could face the most disruption and uncertainty.

"Trade will be among the most important lobbying efforts for companies in the weeks coming," asserts Jenkins. "Corporations are going to have to come up with data on how trade affects their industry. They’ll want to make sure that members of Congress know exactly what kind of harm changes to trade agreements could have on jobs in their districts around the country."

Experts say Trump will likely act very aggressively on the issue, given that foreign trade agreements were a key part of his pitch to voters, particularly in the industrial Midwest and the Rust Belt. And if he is able to push his trade policies through Congress, Jenkins says it could undo years of trade liberalization. The country’s three largest trading partners – Mexico, Canada, and China – could retaliate against new tariffs with their own measures.

"The move will probably create significant economic damage," Jenkins predicts.

After a brief but sharp drop in futures, financial markets reacted positively to the Trump win—and even more so in one key sector, healthcare, in particular the pharmaceutical industry. While Trump has spoken out against the rising costs of prescription drugs, he has not publicly proposed any measures to cap them. Pharmaceutical stocks were also buoyed by the defeat of Proposition 61, the California Drug Price Relief ballot measure.

Jackson says pharmaceutical companies have an opportunity to reframe the discussion about drug costs.

"The conversation has so far been far too one-sided and dominated by insurers and pharmacy benefit managers, while the pharma side of the discussion has not been well-heard or understood," he says. "This takes the wind out of the sails for those looking at price controls as a way to address drug pricing."

Healthcare is one area where there is clarity, given how vocal Trump has been about dismantling President Barack Obama’s hallmark Affordable Care Act, notes Staples.

"There will be some degree of predictability as to where that’s going to go," he says.

PRWeek UK News Editor Sam Burne-James contributed to this report from London.

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