As the new administration gears up and the Republican Congress gets to work, many corporations and institutions are asking what is motivating the president and what will be some of the administration’s key early policy priorities. They want to know how best to engage, what issues to embrace or avoid, what people or resources to bring on board, etc. There are implications for K Street obviously. Historically, in times of political uncertainty the lobbying industry has done well. The irony of President Trump’s win is that lobbyists and corporate advocates are going to become more important, not less important to corporate America.
Trump = unpredictable.
And unpredictable equals opportunity. Trump is neither conservative nor progressive. Nor is he a simple populist. He is the most unpredictable president in modern history and is likely to govern with a quixotic approach that blends red meat Republican issues with traditional labor and progressive issues with a sprinkling of some middle America, blue collar common sense and logic.
The trick for companies will be to figure out where their agendas align and diverge with a president’s agenda that does not fall neatly along traditional/predictable party lines while also avoiding his populist ire.
The value lobbyists bring has been changing, but a Trump administration may slow this change temporarily.
How to influence the new administration is still unclear. The value that lobbyists bring has been changing over the last ten years. Lobbyists’ value used to be related to information and access – they could get information that others didn’t have or was hard to get and they could open doors and influence legislation and regulation rather directly. Over the last ten years, due to changes in technology and in the rules and the partisanship in Congress, information is widely available and traditional access/influence is far less effective.
However, for the next 12 to 24 months we might revert to a world where information and access in the more traditional sense is highly valued, because very few people actually know what is going on or who to lobby. Trump is his own man. His team is not a set of the usual party power brokers and insiders. And it is unclear how much influence his team actually will have on him. It is also unclear how much Trump will get into the details across the vast Executive branch. So right now, knowledge is power. Who are the players and what issues matter? These are the questions being asked now and there is a small universe of people in D.C. who know the answers. The scramble now is to find and hire those people.
Fear the Tweet and have a good lobbyist on hand once you find yourself as the subject of one.
Roosevelt had radio. Kennedy had television. Trump has Twitter (and social media). Trump uses Twitter as his bully pulpit. He has figured out how to communicate directly and effectively with the American people, to his enemies, friends and everyone in between. Do not underestimate the power of the Tweet and what it means for politics…and for corporations at the receiving end. This election has made it irrefutable that the way people, organizations, and companies communicate has changed.
Reputation, and your stock price, can be brought down in an instant. Managing this risk is a top corporate priority. CEOs and Boards are asking themselves, what can I do to avoid being the subject of an early morning Trump Tweet? There is an emerging playbook and a group of Washington operatives who are helping companies through their post-Tweet strategies. You would have to imagine these skills will continue to be valuable over the next four years. Increasingly, government affairs and communications are more closely integrated. So much of influencing Washington requires the right messaging and sustained issue campaigns. The new leaders in corporate advocacy need these skills. Just look at Jay Carney at Amazon or Chip Smith at 21st Century Fox.
Trump was elected to change Washington and he is going to give it a shot.
His Cabinet picks signal his true intention to disrupt the bureaucracy. Nearly all the people he has nominated are interested in reigning in the government agencies they will be running – Education, EPA, Health and Human Services, HUD….the regulatory activism of the Obama administration has come to a screeching halt. The long, complicated task of undoing scores of regulations will then begin…but it will take years. Energy regulation, Dodd-Frank regulated companies, and health care payers and providers will be weighing in heavily on which regulations should be changed or repealed. Like it or not lobbyists and advocates will be in the middle of this change, exercising our constitutional right to self-advocacy before the government.
Understanding the pool of talent is more important than ever and it will pay to take a long term view. While the pendulum has swung fully to the Republican side in Washington, it will swing back again. A keen sense of strategy, strong communications skills, true business acumen and experience mounting ‘campaigns’ will be the key traits for the next generation of advocates and lobbyists in Washington. So, sure, drain the swamp, but keep the lobbyists and advocates who know how to get things done.
Bill O'Leary is a member of executive search firm Russell Reynolds Associates’ Corporate Affairs and Consumer Sectors. He advises clients in the firm's Corporate Officers Practice, with a focus on government affairs, corporate affairs, communications and marketing across sectors in the U.S. and abroad. Bill is based in Washington, D.C.
The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.