From Washington to the Web: Digital Democratizes Lobbying

Financial institutions may win the "award" for worst year ever, but the automotive industry has begun to give banking a run for its money. Last month, the companies that once defined the America's industrial and entrepreneurial spirit found themselves skidding down a slippery slop into imminent financial ruin. Ford, Chrysler and--most iconic of all-- General Motors turned to Congressional leaders, lobbying hard for a bailout package worth billions to help reverse their devastating operating losses. The leaders of Detroit's Big Three--GM's Rick Wagoner, Ford's Alan Mulally and Chrysler's Robert Nardelli--made their way to Washington earlier this month to make their plea in person. The crisis has unfolded to reveal a number of communications nuances that will be critical to coming to any sort of solution, but lobbying--an art as much as a science--has emerged as the star of the show, and not in its traditional form (for an overview of lobbying as a form of communications, see sidebar on page 6). Detroit: Land Of The Free, Home Of The Unemployed? Indeed, just as digital channels have democratized everything from communications to journalism, so too have they become a key driver of citizen lobbyists, so to speak--not to mention a vehicle for corporations to encourage stakeholders to lobby on their behalf. This became evident with the role online platforms played in GM's desperate attempts to upend its financial and reputational crisis. Even Bob Lutz, GM's vice chairman of global product development, admitted the situation was not good when he delivered a keynote address at the Public Relations Society of America's International Conference, fortuitously held in Detroit just last month. "Detroit and the U.S. domestic auto industry need to change a lot of perceptions--often misguided and wrong perceptions--the rest of the country has about us if we're going to turn things around," he said. "In this case, communications, instead of being a weapon for putting out the truth, becomes simple risk avoidance. It focused on making sure that no one says the wrong thing. And often, by focusing on not saying the wrong thing, you're essentially saying nothing." Taking Their Plea To Cyberspace Fast-forward three weeks to Nov. 16, and GM executives were saying far from nothing when they posted a video to YouTube that warned the public about the staggering effect the auto industry's demise would have on the average American. While Wagoner and a team of elite lobbyists swarmed Capitol Hill, the company's communications executives used the Web to reach the public and encourage them to participate in their own lobbying efforts by writing their local congressmen to support GM's bailout bid. The video also appeared on, a Web site created to communicate key information about the current crisis, as well as to refute "myths" with facts. The channel also serves as another platform to mobilize stakeholders to take action on the company's behalf, giving individuals all the tools they need to tell their senators and representatives that "support for the U.S. auto industry is in America's best economic interest and is a sound investment toward a more competitive future" (according to the Web site). Both examples of a slow-moving corporate behemoth turning to the Web to lobby not just Congress but the general public marks what will likely become the future of government relations/public affairs. But, while the financial crisis is by no means near ending, unfortunately the reputational one isn't, either; GM executives misjudged the effect the video would have, as reactions were largely negative in cyberspace. As tech blogger Owen Thomas wrote on, "GM marketers have clearly fallen for the myth of Internet PR--that taking a company's message directly to the people through social media will give it a much friendlier reception than if it is filtered through the mainstream media." The Best Of Times, The Worst Of Times Indeed, the video's YouTube rating was a dismal two out of six stars, and commentators criticized the message. Was it propaganda? Was it credible? Was it transparent? Opinions differ, but the value of authentic communications--especially in times like these--is undeniable. "How many times have you read a corporate press release or a canned statement and thought, 'This doesn't say anything'?" Lutz asked. "I've been a lifelong critic of corporate communications that don't communicate, or are too sanitized. By over-sanitizing everything we say, we make sure that every little big of personality, corporate or otherwise, gets taken out. I think good, effective communications messaging is expressed skillfully, directly, accurately, precisely and honestly." Regardless of judgments passed about the messages in the YouTube video, GM execs can at least take credit for stepping outside the box and making a compelling case. As for the lessons that can be applied to communications executives looking to broaden their lobbying approach to cyberspace, consider the following: Using social media isn't a guarantee: Lobbying politicians is different from lobbying the public to lobby their politicians, and using social media to drive the message isn't a surefire path to success. GM was right in taking ownership of the facts by creating, but the video came off too much like marketing to be universally believed by all stakeholders. Dishonesty killed the cat: Every dirty little secret will come out on the Web, and GM's move to inspire Americans to support the bailout was incongruous with, for example, Wagoner's use of a private jet to fly to Washington. "More often than not, a lack of honesty comes back to haunt you," Lutz said. "Some of the most successful PR campaigns I've seen in my career involved unprecedented levels of honesty and openness, used to great effect and great results." And what of the Big Three's bailout bid, anyway? Since further meetings on the Hill have been postponed until next month, only time will tell. CONTACT: Owen Thomas, The Ground Floor: Lobbying 101 In Preparation For The Master's Class Traditionally a very specialized area of focus for specific industries, lobbying is becoming a more prominent component of business as government regulation increasingly influences critical decisions. But because of its relatively late arrival to the communications party, many executives are still a bit murky on what it actually is, and if they really need to know. Here's a brief breakdown: What: Lobbying refers to the process of using connections and political pressures to influence legislation and other government decisions. Lobbying falls under the government relations/public affairs category of communications sub-functions, though many organizations hire third-party agencies that specialize in their specific industry, and whose political connections can influence decisions in their favor. Where: Lobbying activities are concentrated mostly on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. When: Dependent on election cycles and industry activity; when Congress is in session. Why: Companies lobby to influence legislative decisions that could affect the organization or the industry in which they operates. Industries most active in lobbying include pharmaceuticals and insurance. How: See main article.

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