K Street aims for global expansion

K Street aims for global expansion

K Street is going global in an effort to expand and rebrand itself, courtesy of the trade group for Washington lobbyists.

After dropping the word “lobbyist” from its name in 2013, the Association for Government Relations Professionals (AGRP) has added hundreds of new members as the group looks to boost its clout and extend its reach, both geographically and in terms of the professionals it represents.

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Leading the makeover of the organization formerly known as the American League of Lobbyists is Jim Hickey, who was elected the AGRP’s president in December. Hickey, who joined the outfit five years earlier, launched the push to drop the “L” word.

“For the longest time, the American League of Lobbyists looked at itself as the association that represents lobbyists in Washington and, for a long time, that was a model that worked — and worked well – for members who were D.C. lobbyists,” Hickey said during an interview in the Arlington office of defense contractor and engineering company Day & Zimmermann, where he serves as the vice president of government affairs.

“The problem with that though is that all organizations and markets change, and you either evolve as the times require,” he added, “or you become irrelevant.”

Those changes have already begun to take hold, the group’s new executive director, Robert Hay, told The Hill.

In 2014 — the organization’s first full year with a new name — the AGRP signed up nearly 300 new members, an increase over previous years.

The AGRP has expanded its member services, including boosting the classes offered in its professional lobbying certificate program, which include courses in ethics, state lobbying, budget and appropriations, and online advocacy, among others. 

The group also hosts off-the-record roundtable discussions with lawmakers and congressional staffers.

“It’s more than just changing the name and changing the logo, it’s about becoming a one-stop shop, and we’re going to see that in the next few years,” said Hay, who spent eight years as a registered lobbyist.

With new leadership, a new name and a slew of new members, the AGRP has no plans of slowing down.

Hickey has a vision for the group beyond just expanding its membership base and “opening the tent,” as he says, to other professions.

The Boston native wants to break out of Washington and establish an industrywide database that would connect government affairs professionals at the state, federal and international levels.

If a corporation or grassroots firm, for example, needs to find an advocate with a certain policy expertise within a specific state capital — Hickey wants to be able to provide that resource.

Already, roughly 1 in 6 of the group’s 1,150 members lives outside of the Washington Beltway, which includes parts of Maryland and northern Virginia.

There are nearly 11,800 federally registered lobbyists, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, and an additional 30,000, approximately, operating on the state level, Hickey said.

“I would like us to be able to go to other capitals around the world,” he added, about the database, which he says will be public. “That needs to be created, and I want to be the association that does that.”

The process of rebranding began three years ago, Hickey says, with a simple question of how the trade group’s membership even identified themselves.

As it turned out, only a small fraction listed themselves as lobbyists — instead preferring titles including words such as government affairs, grassroots advocate, political fundraiser or public policy professional. Their jobs, he said, include work more nuanced than the narrow definition of a lobbyist.

While more than 80 percent of the group’s members agreed with the change, some lobbyists charged the AGRP with running from its roots — and the “Scarlet L” — or negative stigma that surrounds the lobbying profession.

Howard Marlowe, a former president of the group, was the only board member who opposed changing the name. 

“There are other professional associations to represent those interests,” Marlowe told The Hill at the time, referring to claims the group was only more accurately describing its members.

But the organization has always maintained that the lobbying profession is still at the heart of what it does.

“The Scarlet L doesn’t bother us at all. We are the Scarlet L, but we’re more than that,” Hickey said. “We have other hats that we wear.”

“I know that there’s a perception outside the organization, ‘Oh that must be the driving force,’ ” he said. “It really wasn’t. We’ll never completely convince everybody of that, but there really were rational reasons why we went the way we did.”

In any case, Hickey is resolved to move the group’s evolution far beyond a mere name change to substantive changes that can boost K Street’s influence and extend it far outside the Beltway.

“Look for great things going forward, some of which I’ve talked about, some of which are in the planning stages now that we hope will pleasantly surprise our membership and the various audience here in town and around the world.”