Scores of government affairs professionals gathered at the Public Affairs Council’s State and Local Government Relations Conference last week to discuss the shape of American politics, the art and science of advocacy and how to increase influence outside Washington.
It was a good time to do it. In less than 50 days, the midterm election will universally impact government affairs teams. In less than 100 days, a new Congress will be seated. Then, state legislative sessions kick off. Add to that the idea that most teams are still learning how to operate in a post-pandemic world, with a remote workforce, increased turnover and a shifting political landscape, and it becomes clear why expert advice might be appreciated.
Our team was on hand to attend many sessions over the two-day conference, and all provided valuable insight. At the risk of leaving out many very compelling presentations, here are some of the highlights.
When Companies Should Speak Out
Companies have seen increasing pressure to weigh in on issues of all kinds, something that would have been unthinkable at many firms just a few years ago. Today, it is fast becoming a market expectation. But what can teams do to prepare?
“You really need three things,” said Barie Carmichael, co-author of Reset: Business and Society in the New Social Landscape and senior counselor APCO Worldwide. “You need, at the minimum, a framework for decisions on when to speak out. You need a playbook on how to speak out. And then most importantly, frankly, you need a good radar.”
Phil Singer, founder and managing director at Marathon Strategies, said that planning is the key, meaning looking at which issues your company is likely to confront and discussing those issues in advance.
“You want to be able to get that planning done early, much in the same way you can do crisis planning,” Singer said. “What are the five or six things that can come out? Is there a Supreme Court decision that’s going to come out? Is there a state legislative initiative that we have to worry about? Start to get that matrix in place for what you will say, when you say it, if you’ll say it and why you’ll say it.”
Balancing Federal, State and Local
While teams are dealing with many new challenges, traditional questions still remain, including how to strategically balance advocacy work between state, federal and local governments.
A good example is the National Association of Realtors, a massive organization with roughly 1.6 million members. One issue important to NAR is increasing housing supply. But that can look very different at the local level, where planning and zoning ordinances are passed, than it does at the federal level, where the administration is working on nationwide policy.
“Barriers occur in different communities for different reasons, there’s not a one-size-fits-all solution,” said Melissa Horn, NAR’s state and local government policy representative. “Issues are different depending on where you live.”
NAR’s structure supports working at all levels, with local and state associations advocating in their jurisdictions and the national association working on federal policy. But they do help each other. The locals give the national boots-on-the-ground stories and the national can provide a broader perspective.
“One of the most valuable assets that I bring to the table for our state and local teams is a kind of a bird’s-eye view of what’s happening across the nation,” she said.
A State-First Approach
While the culture at many organizations is to take a federal-first approach, Joel Baise, senior director for state & local government relations at Walgreen Company, goes the other way.
Working with the federal team at Walgreens, Baise said the company sometimes starts by changing state law, which builds momentum for the issue and can eventually help the company tailor a solution in Washington.
“You can get one state, maybe one year, and maybe a few more the next year,” he said. “And then, it really does force the federal government to act.”
Baise said that watching the action in states can also provide a good early warning system. He uses Hawaii as an example, which passed a law in 2018 banning the sale of sunscreen containing certain chemicals. In following years, questions over the content of sunscreen spread across the country, leading to voluntary recalls and regulatory scrutiny in other states.
“That really started out as a movement in Hawaii a handful of years ago,” he said. “It has completely changed a huge category in the entire retail industry. We knew which way things were going and the way to go.”
As he put it, “don’t sleep on small states doing big things.”
Meeting the Hiring Challenge
Of course, not all challenges are related to policy and advocacy. Many organizations are still having trouble hiring and retaining talent. It’s an issue that impacts many industries—and state governments, too. Even a powerhouse like the American Heart Association, which has more than 3,000 employees in more than 100 offices nationwide—including 150 in government relations, with at least 75 focused on state governments—is feeling the bite.
“We have an unprecedented amount of openings on our team,” said Jill Birnbaum,
senior vice president of field advocacy operations, who has been with the Heart Association 22 years.
As she spoke Thursday, Birnbaum had 10 openings, down from 12. She made two offers that very day. But higher private-sector salaries, the ability to advance employees, and pandemic-related challenges make it difficult.
“We had a person who left because she never met her manager,” Birnbaum said. “We’re very relational in this business. If you’ve never met your manager, you’ve never met your peers, you’ve never even met anybody in the legislature … that was a problem.”
Birnbaum said her organization is working hard to focus on diversity, balance internal promotion with outside hiring and find ways to advance talented people. One strategy has been to expand middle management, giving those who do the nuts-and-bolts work of advocacy additional management duties. It allows them to expand skills, operate across a wider geography and advance into management. She calls them player-coaches.
As Birnbaum put it, “One of the things I’m very dedicated to is building talent in government relations.”