An Obama accident: nation of lobbyists
By: Andie Coller
July 24, 2009 04:12 AM EST

In the future, everyone will be a lobbyist for 15 minutes.

And they’ll have President Barack Obama to thank for it.

The commander in chief may have no love for K Street, but his aversion to traditional lobbying tactics has combined in the public mind with the extraordinary grass-roots campaign that helped propel him to the presidency to produce a result he probably didn’t foresee: a new enthusiasm for grass-roots campaigns among lobbying firms and their clients.

“The rise of the Obama campaign and the election of him through this model has helped to solidify how powerful it is,” says Maria Cardona, a principal with the Dewey Square Group, which specializes in grass-roots work.

“People started to say, ‘Wow, I get the value of it,’” agrees Moses Mercado, a managing director at Ogilvy Government Relations.

“You have CEOs and interest groups who all want their own ‘mini-Obama campaign,’” says another K Street insider, “because it got so much attention — particularly the highlight on technology.”

In the public affairs world, interest in bringing constituents’ voices into the lobbying game has been growing since the early ’90s, when technology and new media began to make reaching and influencing individuals possible on an unprecedented scale. Firms devoted to grass-roots work or that touted a “campaign-style” approach to lobbying began to spring up, bringing both average Americans and local “influencers” into the process.

“I think the Obama phenomenon sort of reinforced what was already going on,” says Mercado.

Yet most traditional public affairs firms still considered such campaigns peripheral at best to what they saw as their “real” work — building and prevailing upon relationships with members of Congress. (Some still do: When asked whether his company had increased its focus on grass-roots work, for example, one top lobbyist recently replied, “That’s not what I do; I do lobbying.”) Grass-roots campaigns were perceived as the kind of distasteful necessity one discreetly hires out, like wet ops or yardwork. 

“There’s kind of a stigma out there in the general public that grass roots is just AstroTurfing, that it’s some kind of fake campaign. Companies are very, very cautious about that,” says one grass-roots campaign vet.

But if technology has changed what’s possible, and policy changed what’s practical, the president has helped change what’s palatable — to K Street, to its clients and to the public.

And with lobbyists now finding themselves “left out of meetings to sit in the hall on Capitol Hill, left out to sit on a bench at the White House,” as another industry insider put it, the high-profile image boost the president gave grass-roots campaigns has even traditional firms taking a fresh look.

“Everybody kind of gets it that if you want to make changes in what [legislators are] doing, you’ve got to get the consumer to speak up, that they’re going to be the ones who are going to be affected,” says Mercado. “That’s what Congress wants to see right now. That’s who everybody wants to hear from. That’s just where we are as a country right now.”

At Watts Partners, for example, they are now putting “a much greater emphasis” on these types of tactics, says partner Richard Fawal. “We look at every single lobbying effort as having a constituent mobilization component,” he says. “We view it from the very beginning as a process that should include the constituents of those members that we need to educate, inform and influence.”

Fawal notes that his firm recently started a constituent mobilization division to bring grass roots into the core of its practice. It is also doing it on a somewhat different scale than might have been possible in the past; a recent campaign on behalf of a single client resulted in 1 million letters, handwritten by regular folks, being delivered to members of Congress.

Notes Holly Pitt Young, an associate managing partner at Watts Partners: “These were letters written totally by the customers talking about the service, why they needed the service, why it was important.”

Sounds a lot like the president’s recent call for “personal stories” to support his health insurance reform plan, no?

With numbers like the ones Young cites, K Street is roughly 299 clients away from turning every man, woman and child in the country into a lobbyist, an achievement the community-organizer-in-chief himself might find impressive — although one he’d be unlikely to want credit for.

Of the link to the president, Trudi Boyd, managing director of FD Public Affairs, notes, “I think that it is a bit of putting a face on it that shows it’s not a scary thing, that it’s a legitimate part of good government, of moving the agenda forward. And if you’re not engaged, you can bet that your opponent is — so you can’t afford not to be.”

Someday, says Cardona with a laugh, “We’ll all be lobbyists, we’ll all like it — and we’ll all love each other for it.”

© 2009 Capitol News Company, LLC

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