From this year's election to the evolving media landscape, all eyes are on the public affairs sector. Industry leaders shared their views with Frank Washkuch at this Fleishman-Hillard-hosted roundtable in Washington.
Matt Bennett, SVP of comms and public affairs, PhRMA
Bill Black, senior partner and co-chair, global public affairs practice, Fleishman-Hillard
Richard Ferraro, VP of comms, GLAAD
David Fuscus, CEO and president, Xenophon Strategies
Sue Hensley, SVP of public affairs comms, National Restaurant Association
Anne Kolton, VP of comms, American Chemistry Council
Blain Rethmeier, SVP, public affairs and government relations, US Travel Association
Marc Ross, comms director, the US-China Business Council
Deidre Swesnik, director of comms and public policy, National Fair Housing Alliance
Scott Talbott,SVP, government affairs, Financial Services Roundtable
The election impact
Frank Washkuch (PRWeek): It's a presidential election year. How does that affect your public affairs campaigns? Moreover, how is it different from a regular year?
Blain Rethmeier (US Travel Association): It's the old adage: “If you can't beat them, join them.” There's a tremendous opportunity in an election year to play off the political cycle, to run your public affairs advocacy campaign similar to an election, and take that election mentality into your messaging and your membership.
Bill Black (Fleishman-Hillard): Usually in an election year, the rule is that not much legislation gets enacted. To the extent there always is gridlock, there's more gridlock in an election year. However, I've never seen the kind of gridlock we see today. You should use this year to build those quiet relationships because you know that, coming into next year, there will be some sort of a “mandate” one way or another.
Anne Kolton (American Chemistry Council): One of the key issues for us is ensuring a readily available and affordable supply of natural gas. This has played right into election-year politics, particularly in some of the traditional swing states, such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia, where natural gas is now the number one issue. We're looking at ways to create that nexus between what we want and what's being discussed in the presidential election anyway, to make sure our point of view is well acknowledged.
Sue Hensley (National Restaurant Association): Our members with restaurants all over the US have some of those same top issues for the presidential campaigns – tax reform, tax cuts, healthcare. These issues impact restaurateurs' bottom line, which is typically 3% to 4%.
David Fuscus (Xenophon Strategies): We've been seeking to tap into issues that are being brought up by the presidential campaign Ð unemployment, the economy. We're going in that direction to try to get the attention on the national level, but we're going much more local now, trying to go out with local issues that will impact individual members in targeted districts.
Matt Bennett (PhRMA): There are some Medicare policies that have to be dealt with, such as the physician payment fix that comes up every year. The election winner's mandate is going to be really important for 2013 and going forward. How that mandate is interpreted for the policy decisions that happen in November and December will have huge implications. It will create another layer of complexity in how we communicate.
From our perspective at PhRMA, it means we have to do an even better job telling our stories this year.
Marc Ross (US-China Business Council): We are very interested in the election because it seems both candidates want to make China a focal point as it relates to jobs. In addition, so much of our work is to speak to the highest levels of government in both Beijing and DC to create a commercial market for US companies to be successful. A lot of American companies are doing very well in China. There are challenges, but in some ways we see this as a real opportunity to be a part of the debate and tell our story. So attention can always be good.
Deidre Swesnik (National Fair Housing Alliance): The housing crisis is a huge issue. The economy affects communities, as well as individual people all the way up to policymakers. There are just so many different audiences, so we're trying to find different ways to talk about it.
Scott Talbott (Financial Services Roundtable): Our industry is going to be the subject of much conversation or much malign during the presidential election. We're trying to position ourselves to talk about the good things the industry is working on with housing, small business lending, what we do for the military.
Obviously, recent events with JPMorgan Chase added a layer of complexity to that message. Our challenge is to downplay the negative and respond with a positive. We can play offense and defense at the same time.
Richard Ferraro (GLAAD): After President Obama came out or gay marriage, we pretty much became ground zero for all of the national media coverage. There were obviously a lot of negative attacks on the gay and lesbian community, but now we have a huge opportunity as a result of Obama's announcement of breaking into media where we haven't traditionally been.
As more and more people get to know gay people in the workplace or at school, they're supporting our issues and they're supporting the right to treat all couples equally. The Republican Party is learning that a lot of its base is now shifting in that way. So perhaps they don't support marriage, but they don't support the idea that gay couples should be treated differently.
Washkuch (PRWeek): How does the economy, a key campaign issue, affect your own messaging and activity?
Talbott (Financial Services Roundtable): We're the oil, if you will, for the economy, so we focus on talking about the positives: the trillions of dollars we finance, the projects we finance, the jobs we create. Every business needs financial institutions at one point or another.
Rethmeier (US Travel): Travel is a $1.9 trillion industry that supports 14.4 million jobs. It is America's number one export. Think about the amount of potential visitors we can get to this country and what it means for jobs. And these are American jobs that can't be outsourced. It's not the fun, frivolous industry many people associate with travel. It really is that engine that drives a lot of the American economy.
Hensley (National Restaurant Association): The restaurant industry is actually the second-largest private sector employer in the US. Talking about job creation and the economic environment, a policy is necessary to continue that growth.
Bennett (PhRMA): We've done a big push around our relationships with vendors and suppliers. We looked at three different states – Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Texas – and found we had some kind of economic relationship in not only every congressional district, but every state legislative district, except for one in Texas and we're trying to find somebody there.
Black (Fleishman): I've become focused on China. I have a number of Chinese company clients. The economic situation creates enormous message discipline because messages one, two, and three are “jobs, jobs, jobs.” Of course, you also have the counter pressure that there is a fair amount of hostility being discussed in terms of China as a job extractor from the economy. It creates an interesting message dilemma.
Swesnik (National Fair Housing Alliance): We're a civil rights organization and a housing organization. The economy definitely forced us to start talking about things in an economic way. There's the moral imperative for fair housing, which will drive what we do all the time, but that only gets you so far with some people. So talking about why discrimination, for example, in the market creates inefficiencies is also helpful.
Ross (US-China Business Council): Being able to explain globalization, supply chains, logistics, the way businesses source material is becoming more important. Being able to take very fancy Wall Street MBA words and make them simple for various people to understand is becoming a bigger part of my job on a daily basis.