Public Affairs Evolving

27 Aug, 2009

By Doug Pinkham
Public Affairs Council President

August 27, 2009

Do you know what America needs? It needs another blog. Yes, I know, there are now more blogs than cats – and probably people. And most of them consist of random thoughts from random voices that would never get expressed without that massive time-saver and time-waster we call the Internet.

But, because we’re drowning in all this information, we need help filtering, summarizing and validating what we read and experience.

So that’s what we intend to do. As the Public Affairs Council (with me as the chief blogger) takes its first, tardy step into the blogosphere, we pledge to serve as a tour guide on news, trends, good ideas and best practices in the field of public affairs.

Here is our first post. Your comments and suggestions are welcome by clicking here.

What’s Up with Public Affairs?

So where is the public affairs business headed?

Even during bad times, experience teaches us that the dollars for advocacy budgets should still be there if the need is demonstrated. And, given Congress’s agenda this year and next, there is no shortage of need. Nevertheless, says the Wall Street Journal, Washington’s lobbying expenditures were down 1 percent in the second quarter, compared with the same three-month period in 2008. Were it not for the gains in lobbying spending by the heath-care and oil and gas sectors, we would have seen a much larger decline.

How is this possible? First, many companies – facing horrible earnings forecasts – have implemented across-the-board budget cuts rather than do the hard work of sorting out which corporate functions provide more value than others.

More Than Just Lobbying

Second, advocacy is no longer a one-dimensional activity. Most campaigns, whether they are run by activist groups, associations or corporations, now take an integrated approach that often emphasizes grassroots and media outreach at least as much as direct lobbying. A recent Business Week article notes that public affairs operations are becoming more sophisticated, with a greater emphasis on legislative strategy and the use of new media. “And lobbyists are looking to cooperate more often with lawmakers – or at least appear to be doing so,” said the article, “rather than simply training their guns on bills they deem hostile.”

‘I Hate This Stuff’

Third, public cynicism about politics has gotten so bad that some business leaders are becoming increasingly anti-Washington – and that’s affecting their support for advocacy. Last week the CEO of a small but fast-growing company started our conversation about lobbying with the statement, “First of all, I want you to know that I hate this stuff.”

Why does he hate this stuff? He agrees with an overwhelming majority of Americans who don’t trust the political process.

Ironically, while the administration has demonized lobbyists, it has shown a willingness to talk with corporate leaders about policy issues. And members of Congress will take appointments with CEOs who employ a lot of voters in their district. “It sends more of a message if you’re willing to spend your time,” a top 3M executive told Business Week.

Too Easy to be Cynical

So, lobbying expenditures may be down, but the causes are likely to be (1) short-term budget cutting, (2) the growth of grassroots advocacy, and (3) a distaste for lobbying that is creeping into the C-suite. As the economy improves, the budget-cutting problem will resolve itself. The shift towards grassroots is a natural evolution. That leaves us with the public cynicism problem, which is much tougher to deal with.

One reason is that legislative battles are looking more and more like political campaigns, with all the associated mud-slinging, name-calling and fact-distorting. Witness the amount of media coverage this summer about a series of fake letters sent to Capitol Hill by a grassroots firm working for the coal industry.

Grassroots is not Astroturf

The firm, to its credit, fired the employee when it discovered what had happened and went public with the news. But it didn’t matter. There was more outrage about the issue than there were daily newspapers left to report about it. The latest salvo came from Politico, which stated hyperbolically that Washington, D.C. “is paved with Astroturf.”

(Now that I think about it, maybe my commute home would be a lot quieter if the city streets actually were paved with Astroturf. Note to self: check transportation funding guidelines in economic stimulus act.)

For a more reasonable perspective, read the op-ed by author Ryan Sager in the August 18 New York Times.  We’ll end this post with his take on the protests and counter-protests taking place at town hall meetings on healthcare reform:

“Here’s a rule: Organizing isn’t cheating. Doing everything in your power to get your people to show up is basic politics. If they believe what they’re saying, no matter who helped organize them, they’re citizens and activists. The language at the town halls may get ugly and rough. But it’s not Astroturf.”