Walking the Tightrope-Advice for DMV Advocacy and PR pros after the 2018 Midterms

By Lawrence J. Parnell, Associate Professor, George Washington University

Walkin’ the tightrope between wrong and right
Walkin’ the tightrope both day and night

Lyrics: Stevie Ray Vaughn – Tightrope

Now that we are past the 2018 Mid Terms it’s time to consider the way forward for area communications professionals.

First, where are we? In Congress, the results were mixed – the House went one way, the Senate the other. Women and veterans won elections, and some are ascending to important positions in the political and government arenas. Several key states have changed Governors. State and local governments are in flux as well.

Let’s begin with the realization that this is how it will be for up to two years. Two entrenched camps in Congress seeking an advantage over the other, while the White House bobs and weaves like a fighter trying to avoid the knockout punch. “Crazy Town”, indeed.

So, how do we defend/enhance corporate reputations; advance causes or represent clients?

The short answer is we must be constantly alert and aware of public opinion about our issue, cause or client – not to mention the latest Tweet from you know who. We need to be responsive and effective without losing our balance or our voice. And, we must be ethical throughout – even if others are not – or we risk damaging our own reputations.

How do we do all that?

In a recent outlook piece in Holmes Report, Bill Dalbec of APCO’s DC office suggests:

“The idea that you can do your stakeholder mapping, and know where everyone is going to be, is out the window. (The current climate) is really forcing companies and trade associations and others to be more agile and adapt on the fly, try new things and constantly be reinventing themselves.”

SKDKnickerbocker managing partner Hilary Rosen, quoted here as well agrees: “Since the issues have become more divisive, (organizations) need to work harder to get their point across,” she said. “The stakes have gotten higher from both sides.”

Truly, companies and organizations are being challenged like never before. Our students tell us they came to GWU to learn how to leverage social media, understand global trends and interpret public policy to be more effective.

We think they are on the right track. We add a basic understanding of finance and business – which is required if you are trying to navigate the intersection of Main Street, Wall Street, Capitol Hill and Pennsylvania Ave.

Clearly, the next few years won’t be boring. If we are successful, and avoid falling, we can bring value to our clients, companies, candidates or causes. Good luck – and be careful!

PRSA-NCC Members Experience VIP Tour of Pentagon’s Press Operations

By Bonnie Piper, co-chair of the Public Affairs Committee

img_1787Twenty chapter members had the privilege of an all-access behind the scenes tour of the press operations at Pentagon, the headquarters of the Department of Defense. PRSA-NCC member Patrick L. Evans, Defense Department Spokesperson for the office of the Secretary of Defense led the VIP tour.

Reporters know the Pentagon as a “shoe-leather beat” because you walk everywhere in the Pentagon.That walking exercise translates to covering corridors that total 17.5 miles and a building footprint as large as 34 acres.

Navy Captain Jeff Davis, Director of the DOD Press Office introduced the PRSA-NCC members to the DOD Press Briefing Room. So much is going on in the Pentagon that there is a resident press crew of 40 different bureaus plus an additional 250 credentialed reporters who cover the Pentagon and military issues. He estimates the DOD press office is the most accessible office than any other Executive Branch agency.

img_1797Social media has stepped up the pace of reporting – a tweet drives news, and it’s hard to prove the negative. His deputy director, Tara Rigler, described a typical day for a DOD press officer that begins at 5:00 am by reviewing email news service (from bases around the world), then contacting various DOD offices at the Pentagon or abroad to clarify information and then develop talking points. There are 25 press officers who cover a broad spectrum of knowledge and each has continuity with one account. In addition, there is an Office of Digital News headed by a political appointee.
The DOD Press office is a very different place since 9/11. Before 9/11, the Pentagon was downsizing, there was no digital media, no social media, no Facebook, and cell phones were new. The press office had more control – reporters had to come into the Pentagon to get news. Since 9/11, everyone now has cell phones and Facebook pages and people share news; social media has changed everything.

Is everything on the record? There are ground rules that must be followed, to include giving background for context or to help a reporter understand a technical point. After the tour, the group moved on to Sine Irish Pub and Restaurant for happy hour.

The event was organized by Bonnie Piper and John Scally of the Public Affairs and Government committee.

“Taking it to the Tweets: How Digital Advocacy Will Shape Public Affairs in 2015” Covers Best Practices and Looking Ahead

By Robert Krueger, director of public relations and social media at the Urban Land Institute


From left to right: Anthony Shop, Adora Jenkins, Allie Walker, Phillip Lovell

Are Washington policymakers and staff actually paying attention to your social media posts? It may be surprisingly good news to public affairs offices that policymakers spend a considerable amount of time listening to rather than broadcasting their own messages. That was the panel consensus at a recent PRSA-NCC event entitled “Taking it to the Tweets: How Digital Advocacy Will Shape Public Affairs in 2015.”

The morning panel focused on what digital tools could reach decision makers on Capitol Hill and produce real results. Panel moderator and Co-Founder of Social Driver, Anthony Shop, shared the results of a recent Congressional study on what had more influence: email campaigns, a single Facebook comment, or a Twitter “thunderclap.” To attendees’ amazement, Congressional staff rated the individual Facebook comment as the most influential since they appear the most authentic and least manufactured.

Adora Jenkins, Vice President of External Affairs at the Information Technology Industry Council and Former Press Secretary to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, helped put this into context explaining that government agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), is limited in what it can broadcast since its social media posts automatically become official responses and part of government record. Because of this, government agencies will use social media platforms primarily as listening tools in order to analyze the sentiment of their constituents.

However, the ability of public affairs offices and lobbyists to take advantage of a social media-attentive Washington culture can be tricky. Panelist Allie Walker, communications specialist at Honda North America and former press secretary to Congressman Dave Camp and the Ways and Means Committee, stressed that the key is giving your public affairs audience the representation you intended. Speaking on reputation management through new digital tools, Walker said that her company focuses on creatively sharing what they have, what they do, and who they are through storytelling. She noted that this starts with listening at both the local and national level, building your image, and then acquiring a base of digital allies that will help communicate your message to policymakers.


From left to right: Susan Matthews Apgood, Allie Walker, Adora Jenkins, Phillip Lovell, Anthony Shop

Phillip Lovell, Vice President for Policy and Advocacy of the Comprehensive School Reform at Alliance for Excellent Education, provided the most detailed example of how a targeted digital campaign can get noticed by policymakers. Targeting the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) with his 99in5 campaign, his advocacy organization used visual technology to increase awareness to people outside the Washington Beltway. With the goal of getting over 99 percent of U.S. schools to adopt high speed broadband internet within a 5-year period of time, his organization asked students, teachers, and administrators to create and post online videos on why reliable and fast Wi-Fi is important to their school.

What made social media campaigns, like 99in5, such a success was its authentic nature. When digital advocacy campaigns ask constituents to be involved and help create content, a message becomes more genuine due to the fact that you have actual people advocating on behalf of your campaign. Panelists emphasized that whether it is an organically created video or a retweet, it is seen as mobilization by policymakers, and they will surely take notice.


Finding a PR Firm Isn’t the Piece of Cake it Used to Be . . . and It Shouldn’t Be

Time was, searching for a PR firm meant jotting down a few requirements and shooting it to a few former colleagues or friends of friends at two or three familiar agencies.

Sorry. Like everything else in life, finding the firm that will best serve your needs is no longer that easy. And it shouldn’t be. In today’s bottom line-focused ROI environment can you really invest six digits into an agency that may or may not be able to move the needle for your organization? You need to be assured you’re getting smart thinking and measureable results — and agencies should be accountable for their commitments to their clients.
Embed from Getty Images

The agency landscape is wide, and wide open. Sometimes it feels like there are too many qualified agencies out there. But that shouldn’t guide you toward short cuts, or rushing the process. As we’ve pointed out many times to clients and prospects, if the money you have allocated to a PR agency budget were instead going toward the hiring of two or three full-time, professional staff, how much time and effort would you and your HR department spend investigating their backgrounds, capabilities, and knowledge?

The recently released USC Annenberg biennial GAP Study assessing PR industry trends and practices expects more money to be spent in 2014 and beyond for communications. The study of 347 senior communicators says that PR-related recommendations are being taken more into consideration by senior management, who expect the function to be a contributor to organizations’ financial success. Your organization should be selecting firms with proven experience in supporting your internal managerial needs as well as your overall communications goals.

Today’s agency field includes seasoned veteran agencies, mid-sized niche players, and a crop of very competent rookies that have left some venerable firms to blaze their own paths. Whether they are local, large, full service, or specialty, there are probably dozens of agencies out there most suitable for you. But the right agency can only be discerned through the lens of a detailed and thorough search that is tailored to your organization’s needs.

When interviewing prospective agencies it is critical to include process and procedure as key topics. Too often, we find confusion when the client-agency relationship begins if staffing, structure, reporting, billing, and event contracts are not discussed in the early phases. And, we’ve even advised clients that repairing agency relationships that have gone sour may be a better use of time and resources than parting ways with that agency and starting over with a new search.

Even agreeing on your mutual definition of success is no small feat, and so often is overlooked or not addressed during the selection process. With projects the issue might be easier (one would hope) but with longer-term, multi-year contracts it is very important to establish measureable benchmarks even before searching for your agency, and then making it clear that is what the selected agency will be judged on. Believe it or not, it will more appreciated than you’d expect. Because any good PR firm will tell you that a good client knows what it wants and has, or develops with the agency, the metrics of success.
– Robert Udowitz

Robert Udowitz is a principal of RFP Associates, a PR agency search firm serving trade associations and corporations. This was originally published on the RFP Associates “Cart Before the Horse” blog, which can be found at rfpassociates.net.

Maryland Tax Proposal Would Hand Another Victory to Virginia

By Brad Wills and Henry Fawell

“And The Winner Is…Virginia”

That’s the headline greeting anyone who visits CNBC’s 2011 “Survey of America’s Top States for Business” online. Virginia ranks as the premiere place in America to do business while our home state of Maryland lags 28 spots behind.

In coming weeks, that disparity may get a lot worse. On Tuesday, March 6, the Maryland General Assembly held a hearing to consider a proposal to impose a new six percent sales tax on professional services firms in Maryland, including public relations firms like ours. The tax would also be applied to dozens of other services, from commercial cleaning to cell phone coverage.  More than 74 witnesses signed up to testify before the House Ways & Means Committee, including PR professionals, and the committee heard an earful.   WJZ TV in Baltimore ran this story yesterday on the hearing.

Our opposition to this plan is not borne of partisanship. One of us is a lifelong Democrat and the other a lifelong Republican. We were both born and raised in Maryland. Our opposition is due to the severe decline in work and revenue PR firms and other professional services firms like ours will experience if House Bill 1051 becomes law. Consider the consequences:

The Virginia Factor: Virginia outranks Maryland in 9 out of 10 economic categories in CNBC’s survey, from overall economy to cost of living. Despite these odds, our respective firms “import” work and revenue to Maryland from Virginia clients, which we then spend in our communities in the form of personal income, philanthropy and by hiring employees and subcontractors. If House Bill 1051 becomes law, the importation of Virginia money may cease entirely for Maryland firms like ours. Our Virginia clients will shift work from our companies to Virginia firms whose costs have not been artificially inflated by their government.

Mobility: Saddled with this new tax, professional services firms like ours will simply move to Virginia, the District of Columbia, Delaware or Pennsylvania. We don’t have heavy machinery to move. We only need to move brainpower, laptops and mailing addresses a few miles across the Potomac. We know from experience. We served as media advisors to the Maryland Computer Services Association during its successful repeal of the infamous “Tech Tax” in 2008. Within days of the tax’s enactment, hundreds of computer services firms received letters from economic development offices in bordering states encouraging them to move across state lines. Only full repeal of that tax prevented the exodus of hi-tech entrepreneurs and jobs. Odds are good we’ll see those letters again if House Bill 1051 becomes law.

Hurting the Little Guy: Consider the impact this tax will have on the owners of very small businesses. For a sole proprietorship, one or two owner S-Corps or LLC’s, a new business tax is, practically speaking, identical to a second personal income tax. The cash to pay this new tax comes directly out of the owner’s pocket. For these owners, there may be no alternatives to recoup the funds that are available to larger corporations such as price increases, stock sales or other funding. Likewise, our small business clients would shoulder a disproportionate tax burden as lawmakers force them to pay the same tax rate on professional services that a Fortune 100 would pay.

The Message to Entrepreneurs: Like all entrepreneurs, we both took a risk – a personal, professional and financial risk – to pursue the dream of entrepreneurship in Maryland. We are driven by the idea of helping others communicate more effectively. We take pride in building our respective enterprises while creating work and wealth for others. Like the thousands of small businesses subject to House Bill 1051, we don’t want to be punished for pursuing this dream.

If Maryland lawmakers want to create jobs and score a few victories against Virginia for a change, they can start by rejecting this terribly flawed bill.  All PR professionals in Maryland should get involved by writing your representative in Annapolis. Click here to link to the Maryland Chamber of Commerce’s web site that does a great job outlining the issue and makes it easy to get involved.

Brad Wills is President & CEO of Wills & Associates Public Relations in Bethesda. Henry Fawell is President of Campfire Communications in Annapolis.
Share your thoughts – let us know how this could impact your business.