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Line blurs between PR, lobbying

Greg Nash

K Street isn’t just for lobbyists anymore.

Some of Washington’s hottest law and lobby firms are bringing public relations professionals in-house as they seek to influence Capitol Hill and the administration.

Offering PR services, many in the industry say, has become a necessity in an era when controlling the media message is just as important to clients as cultivating relationships.

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“This is not your father’s lobbying anymore,” said Ivan Adler, a principal at the McCormick Group. “It’s a whole different ballgame.”

Adler, who works as a K Street headhunter, says he is fielding more calls from law firms, lobbying firms and industry groups that are looking to add public affairs capabilities.

“They’re looking to reach other audiences besides lawmakers, and that’s what public affairs is about,” he said.

The bipartisan firm Monument Policy Group is one of the latest lobby shops to get in on the PR boom.

The firm plans to announce this week that it has hired John Murray, a former House GOP leadership aide who has been working behind the scenes for clients such as the International Franchise Association (IFA) and the investment bank Moelis & Co.

The addition of Murray is part of a growth spurt at Monument Policy Group that includes the addition of former White House counsel Stephanie Martz. 

“Clients want and deserve a broader view on how to win,” said Stewart Verdery, the founder of Monument Policy Group, which is not lobbying for the IFA or Moelis. “Obviously lobbying is essential, but it’s not sufficient without shaping the environment to your client’s advantage.”

Murray has also overseen strategy and fundraising for the YG Network and served as the No. 2 aide for former House Majority Leader Eric CantorEric CantorThe Trail 2016: On the fringe Cantor 'pleased' Trump is embracing Jeb Bush's immigration plan Trump’s Breitbart hire sends tremors through Capitol Hill MORE (R-Va.). He’s also worked at trade associations and the PR giant Burson-Marsteller. 

“He’s got an innate sense of the bigger picture, and that’s what he and Monument are trying to do — trying to expand on what the conventional notion of a lobbying practice with influence on the Hill is,” said Cantor, now a vice chairman and managing director at Moelis & Co.

While some D.C. firms still send clients to preferred vendors for help with public relations and grassroots organizing, the movement toward one-stop shops is accelerating.

One firm making the shift is the all-GOP lobby shop S-3 Group, which is rebranding as S-3 Public Affairs as it merges with Bryant Row. 

The move comes with the addition of veteran communications pro Amos Snead and his boutique PR team. Stationed in a row house in Eastern Market, S-3 Public Affairs plans to integrate lobbying services with coalition management, digital advocacy campaigns, crisis communications and brand development.

In a similar move, the Democratic powerhouse lobby firm Elmendorf | Ryan last September merged with the PR firm Home Front Communications to create a 70-person organization named Subject Matter. 

Steve Elmendorf, one of the firm’s founders, said that working closely with mass communication experts makes him a better lobbyist.

“Lobbyists are essentially in the communications business. We’re communicating sometimes one-on-one or in a small group,” he said. “The more you know about how a person gets information and makes decisions, the better you’re going to be at doing your job.”

With the explosion of information online, public relations campaigns have become even more important, lobbyists say.

“I think lobbying is changing,” Elmendorf said. “People realize that decision makers get their information in so many different ways than they used to, and there are more channels of information. You need to do more than just [direct] lobbying.”

Cantor said grassroots lobbying is often the most effective way to get the attention of a lawmaker.

“The essence of our democratic system is policymakers, or members of Congress, is they win or lose at home, not in Washington,” he said.

“If there’s a lot of grassroots support, whatever the issue may be — it makes it easier for a policymaker to encounter an issue, to understand all the sides of the issue and hopefully make the right decision.”

One firm that understands that dynamic is Forbes-Tate, whose founders Jeff Forbes and Dan Tate began talking in 2014 about ways to expand the firm’s work to include communications and grassroots strategy.

“Most of us have a campaign background, so it seemed natural to start doing state stuff too,” Forbes said. 

Many clients, Forbes said, didn’t want to hire separate firms for grassroots, federal or state lobbying and strategic communication.

“They’re much more comfortable having their federal guys integrate all those pieces,” said Forbes-Tate partner Zachary Williams. 

The expansion of the firm’s services got off the ground last year and now contributes about 15 percent of the firm’s overall revenue, Forbes said.

“Next year it will be 25 [percent],” Williams said.

Other major lobbying firms — such as McBee Strategic, Holland & Knight, BGR Group and Podesta Group — have been integrating PR into their shops for years.

Missi Tessier, a principal at Podesta Group, recalled that when she first started at the firm 19 years ago, it consisted of about 20 people, with only a handful of individuals focused on PR. 

But that side of the business has grown rapidly in recent years. Podesta went from earning earned $3.2 million in public relations revenues in 2010 to $9 million in 2015, according to firm-provided figures. 

During the same time period, Podesta’s non-lobbying activities grew from 16 percent of it total revenue to 44 percent. In 2015, the firm earned about $23.2 million in lobbying fees.

“Having sat in congressional offices in the House and in the Senate,” said Tessier, who had worked for Republican leadership in the House and for former Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), “the communications director was always at the table with the legislative director” during any meeting.

In the White House, she added, “you need a policy strategy and a regulatory strategy, but if you don’t communicate it well, you’re only going to be partially successful.”

Putting more services under the same roof has major advantages, according to Jeff Birnbaum, the president of BGR Public Relations. Even though the PR and lobbying arms of the firm don’t always share clients, “if we have a PR client that needs lobbying help, we just go down the hall.”

Holland & Knight cemented its shift in its business by establishing a risk and crisis management team to provide clients with additional crisis PR help last year.

Rich Gold, the head of the firm’s public policy group, said that a lot of what it is doing is coalition management, which he says is a split between regulatory work, PR and lobbying. It runs 20 coalitions or ad-hoc trade associations.

“People are combining efforts to get more bang for their buck,” he said.