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The Rise of “Policy Comms” and Why It Matters

The Rise of “Policy Comms” and Why It Matters

September 2023

It happens more often than you’d think. Jessica Strieter Elting will be on Capitol Hill, and a member of Congress spots her and “quacks.” That she represents insurance company Aflac explains this odd occurrence, but even so, she’s not totally thrilled by the recognition.

“They know the Duck, like they know the Geico Gecko, as a cool brand,” Elting says. “The problem is, they rarely know exactly what Aflac does, and that’s a concern.” Because she is the company’s director of political and public affairs, the challenge is personal: Part of her responsibilities is to educate elected officials, and she understands what a challenge that can be.

“What we do is offer supplemental insurance, and that is a complicated specialty,” she says. “Policy is wonky and complex, especially when it comes to insurance. It is too much to expect most members of Congress, or most state legislators, to understand the nuances. It is a lot to expect even our marketing people back at corporate headquarters in Georgia to pull together one-pagers that explain our position on some arcane matter of tax or regulatory policy, which is why the specialized discipline of policy communications is becoming increasingly important, no matter what business you are in.”

That’s also why the Washington offices of companies are beefing up their communications staffs. “The importance of explaining complex policies is something AT&T has understood for at least as long as I have been with the company, which has been 15 years,” says Erik Hower, AT&T’s senior vice president of public affairs. “A collaborative approach is ingrained in our company culture. We have people like me in our Washington office — people with a political background — but we also have policy communications professionals who are former journalists and professional communicators, who have covered telecom and technology throughout their careers. We collaborate on how to best message communications to policymakers and other key audiences.”

Hower cites passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act in late 2021 as an example of the importance of policy communications. “Framing the discussion around policy is a key part of advocacy. Explaining our position on an important part of that package informed the debate and helped to shape good public policy that will aid millions of Americans — some of whom are already starting to benefit from it.”

Hower is referring to the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program and the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), established by the act. The term “infrastructure” conjures up images of roads and bridges — and they are certainly part of what the package provided for — but increased buildout of broadband infrastructure and making broadband affordable for underserved communities was part of it too.

Specialists Needed

“The universe of policymakers who have a deep and detailed understanding as to the intricacies of broadband buildout and affordability is pretty small,” Hower says. “That’s to be expected. So you need specialists who can explain the issues clearly and persuasively to members of Congress — and to the general public. A lot is at stake here.”

The ACP and BEAD programs direct more than $42 billion to construct broadband networks and also establish subsidies to offset the cost of internet service to low-income households. The federal subsidies match the investment that broadband providers are making to bring broadband to largely unserved and underserved communities, which means billions more are going toward expanding connectivity.

“We needed professionals who could explain the intricacies and importance of all this — both in long-form communications as well as 280 characters,” Hower says. “And after considerable debate, the program and the larger infrastructure package was passed by a divided Congress. The low-income subsidy has been implemented for a year and a half now, and we are seeing tens of millions of Americans already benefitting from the program.”

‘Hyperpolitical’ Congress

The divisions in our politics make these communications efforts especially urgent. “Washington has become hyperpolitical,” Elting observes. “Congress is divided as never before, so virtually every policy becomes political. The public itself is divided, as has become increasingly apparent over the past decade or so. The practical implications of this for organizations — especially those with Washington offices — have become increasingly clear over the past decade or so. This is true even for companies like ours. What we do takes some explaining because of its complexity, but it is rarely controversial. We don’t have to spend a lot of time putting out fires, but that doesn’t mean what we do in this partisan environment is easy.”

The nature of lobbying itself has changed in recent decades, which Elting says only ratchets up the importance of policy communications. Network-based lobbying — which relies mainly on personal relationships — is still important, but what is often called knowledge-based lobbying has increased in significance. “You need policy people who can equip the lobbyists with the information they need to explain complicated policy to the elected official,” Elting says.

Educating Elected Officials

Few elected officials are policy experts on the wide array of issues before them, and the same is true of their staffers. “There is also a lot of turnover these days in Capitol Hill staff, and our work involves educating staff as well as elected officials at the federal level and at the state level,” says Meaghan Joyce, director of political and advocacy strategy at International Paper. “As policy becomes more complex and sometimes even arcane, our efforts to communicate effectively about it have had to evolve.”

International Paper’s efforts, like those of many companies, represent a broader shift in corporate communications strategy. “When social media debuted in the early 2000s, many U.S. firms moved communications under marketing instead of housing it with public affairs or having it report directly to the CEO,” says Council President Doug Pinkham. “But if the role of communications is to support marketing, who is going to focus on policy comms? In some companies, the policy comms team literally became homeless.”

Recent studies point to a shift away from the communications/marketing nexus to corporate structures that integrate government affairs, social impact and communications (or at least the policy comms component), says Pinkham.

There are good reasons for this integration. “Disinformation has increased reputation risk and political uncertainty has increased political risk. And with trust in government plummeting, the public has come to expect companies to do more to fix social problems,” Pinkham says. “Employees, who have emerged as major stakeholders, also expect their employers to be more active in addressing social issues. All of these factors put a premium on communicating effectively about complicated matters of public policy. That’s why companies are strengthening their policy comms teams, and it’s why Washington offices are increasingly hiring their own policy comms specialists.”

Speaking ‘With One Voice’

Joyce says that in her 15 years at International Paper, “our team in Washington has had a collaborative relationship with our business issues experts and corporate communications team, which empowered us to create many of our own policy comms tools. It’s imperative to speak with one voice on many issues such as sustainability, for example. But we also have to drill down here in Washington on the wonkier aspects of policy — such as our interest in tax credits for research and development.”

The company’s position on trade also requires explaining and being able to talk about trade policy depends upon a sound understanding of it. “Nearly a third of what we manufacture in the U.S. is export,” Joyce says. “We use southern U.S. pine tree fibers to make the absorbent material in diapers and menstrual products, and that material is in demand all over the world. So we have to be able to educate policymakers on our commitment to forest stewardship— and the sustainability of the source of the material — and the supply chain policies that enable us to export it. We also need to explain these matters to our own employees.”

And having a recognizable logo or mascot will take you only so far in such efforts. “Our brand is well recognized, but that cannot be an end in itself,” Aflac’s Elting says. “Research revealed that with this recognition, we still weren’t doing a good enough job explaining what it is that Aflac does. So in June, we partnered with Axios to produce a story and video explaining the importance of supplemental insurance and Aflac’s role in bridging the medical debt gap. This is not a simple matter to explain but is powerful when it is explained. And the results — in terms of audience response, in time spent reading the story and click-through rates for the video — has far exceeded our expectations. We are beginning to break through, which is huge.”

Now the head of Aflac’s corporate HR department wants to use the video for new hires. “You need policy comms professionals to explain what you do to policymakers — and sometimes, it turns out, to your own colleagues,” Elting says. “So, you never know where policy comms might lead and how important it is. Smart companies understand this, which is why they are moving in this direction.”

The Public Affairs Council manages a Policy Communicators Roundtable with member experts who work in the field. The Council also hosts workshops and other training on the topic. For more information on the Council’s offerings in this area, contact Alexander Donovan at [email protected].

We needed professionals who could explain the intricacies and importance of all this — both in long-form communications as well as 280 characters

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