Public Affairs: How 2012’s Gains in Process May Play Out in 2013

Kathy Roeder

In terms of public affairs advocacy, 2012 was awfully dull. Besides the fiscal cliff fight, no issue debate gripped the nation like the mega debates over Obamacare, immigration or even the debt ceiling debate of 2011. Brands also (mostly) managed to avoid months-long stories about recalls, scandals or environmental catastrophes.  

Here’s one way to look at just how much the action slowed in 2012: as of October 31, 2012, the Center for Responsive Politics tracked $2.45 billion in federal lobbying spending in 2012. This is a massive amount of money, but it is also a low compared to $3.33 in 2011 and $3.52 in 2010, and the very active years of 2009 and 2008 ($3.5 and $3.8 billion respectively). 

While lobbying reflects just one portion of a public affairs effort, it is a meaningful indicator for activity. When companies and organizations spend less money lobbying on issue priorities, they tend to reduce other public affairs activity as well. 

Presidential politics accounts for much of the decline this year. Congress and issue advocacy players slowed their efforts in 2012 while waiting to see if the November results would strengthen their policy hand.

At the same time, president politics accounts for many of the highs. The Obama for America campaign combined the best of business marketing and political outreach to develop savvy tools and targeted messages for moving voters. Their efforts stood out. Despite a decades-long innovation cycle around the world, political players adopt new communication and outreach tools at a notoriously slow rate. Six years after the launch of Twitter we still marvel when a Member of Congress uses it effectively without embedding himself in a national scandal.

Fortunately for those of us working in public affairs communications, a quieter year in terms of issue activity did not equal a boring year.  A year that was weak on intensive policy debate gave public affairs communicators a chance to fine tune the highly specialized tools that influence opinion and drive action. 

Top takeaways from the year are trends that we’ve tracked for some time: that a positive narrative for you does not need to start with a news media pitch, and sometimes communicating directly to your targeted audience is even more important than getting a story. That is why 2012 led to so much innovation and focus on low-cost, low-overhead targeting and communications tools. 

Looking back over the year, here is our list of seven process tools that mattered in 2012 and how they may play out in 2013. 

  1. Email: Instead of fading with age, email is more relevant than ever. Issue advocates improved email strategies for fundraising and action-oriented “asks,” allowing them to segment audiences and greater enhance the chances for engagement.  

  2. Twitter: The micro-conversation wasn't made for politics, but the minimalist social media network allows unfiltered access to giant, self-selected audiences while opening a direct door to decision makers.  

  3. Memes: The one moment where the grassroots drives the conversation instead of the professionals. Viral memes such as Texts from Hillary, Ryan Gosling and Paul Ryan Gosling, binders full of women, and even Claire Danes’s crying ("Homeland") offer 15-minute fame bites for fans and foes.  

  4. Infographics: The migration of content onto blogs, Twitter, digital news sites, and even Pinterest forces public affairs communicators to produce content that communicates quickly, posts and shares easily.

  5. Tumblr and Instragram: Still more artsy than public affairs oriented, in 2013 will issue advocates learn how to grow and mobilize supporters in these social networks? 

  6. Multimedia: Politico had great success with its live video during the GOP primaries and expanded into “Behind the Curtain” coverage, and Huffington Post launched a live show. Will more news outlets find ways to combine video, digital and print to increase audience size in 2013?

  7. Quote approval: An issue for the uber-insiders. In 2012 The New York Times announced a formal policy that reporters will no longer run quotes past spokespeople for approval after an interview. Will more news outlets follow suit in 2013, and will the loss of quote approval chill the willingness of some top sources to go on the record, opening more space for those with less information but more willingness to be quoted?

Kathy Roeder is a partner at Blue Engine Message & Media, a Washington, D.C. Based firm specializing in strategic communications, brand management and issue advocacy.