Tim Ebner is former senior editor of Associations Now in Washington, DC.
In light of a new administration and Congress, associations are taking a fresh look at their government relations strategy and tactics. A key word for 2017: agility.
If there’s one thing President Donald Trump is not afraid to do, it’s tweet. He famously uses his favorite social media platform—Twitter—to call out Fortune 500 companies, powerful foreign leaders, celebrities, and critics of all kinds.
Unlike any president before him, Trump has found a unique way to speak directly to the American people. If you’re an association leader, chances are good that you’re paying attention to what he has to say. That’s because at any given moment, your issue could become the one the president is talking about.
“We are trying to stay nimble and agile. That’s been our strategy,” says Pat Jones, executive director and CEO of the International Bridge, Tunnel, and Turnpike Association (IBTTA). “I think it’s fruitless for us to predict precisely what we’re going to see from Trump. Because from the moment he entered this race, we have been surprised at every turn.”
Whether you see an opportunity to advance your agenda or a need to defend members’ interests, it’s wise to reexamine your government relations strategy right now, says Jim Kahl, a partner at the DC law firm Whiteford, Taylor & Preston, LLP.
These days, there’s a bit of lobbyist matchmaking happening on K Street. “Republican lobbyists are in great demand right now,” he says. “For a lot of people, there’s the question of: Do we now have the right people in place?”
At the same time, there are a lot of unknowns, particularly about possible changes to lobbying rules. Trump vowed to “drain the swamp” in Washington, DC, and to close the revolving door between government and private-sector GR work.
“People have already come to us with their lobbying and compliance questions. ... It’s a bit of wait-and-see,” says Jeff Altman, also a partner at Whiteford, Taylor & Preston. “What we know now is that a Republican majority means organizations need to be ready to respond to bills immediately. With the new Congress, legislation will be passed very quickly.”
If speed is critical, social media may become the communication tool of choice for those engaged in issue advocacy. Twitter is one of the many tactics that IBTTA says it’s leveraging to engage the administration and the public on issues related to America’s infrastructure.
IBTTA has 11 staff, with two dedicated to GR work. Despite its size, its work could result in big gains, says Government Affairs Director Neil Gray.
“We are spending a little more time and energy on entering mainstream conversations,” Gray says. “We are speaking out about things, like the confirmation of Cabinet officials and the introduction of new legislation, to help advance our issues in this administration.”
Even before Trump took office, IBTTA was in touch with the transition team and members of Congress about his proposal to invest $1 trillion in America’s infrastructure over the next 10 years. While the details of the plan were unknown at press time, IBTTA sees an opportunity to accelerate infrastructure growth with deficit-neutral investments, like tolling.
“We’ve developed our priorities and messaging, and I think our priorities and plan fit quite well with what limited information we have at this point about Trump’s plan,” Jones says.
And while tolling does not receive direct federal funding, Jones says IBTTA will talk with the White House and lawmakers about how state and local governments can benefit from tolls as part of a national infrastructure plan.
We are talking a lot about infrastructure right now, and while there are no detailed plans from Congress, we have an opportunity to shape those plans.—Brian Pallasch, CAE, American Society of Civil Engineers
Coalition building is a key component of this work. Shortly after the election, IBTTA gathered a group of 18 associations in the industry to build consensus on policy goals. “We had a conversation around issues that are common to us all, and we are going to continue to work together on them this year,” Jones says. “That’s a strength and strategy for advancing your issues—to work in common with other organizations.”
Meanwhile, for the American Society of Civil Engineers (part of the IBTTA coalition), shoe-leather lobbying continues to be a critical GR function, supported by data and messaging about the need for infrastructure investment in its “Report Card for America’s Infrastructure,” published every four years. The 2017 edition was due out in March.
“We are talking a lot about infrastructure right now, and while there are no detailed plans from Congress, we have an opportunity to shape those plans,” says Brian Pallasch, CAE, managing director of government relations at ASCE. “In large part, we’re pleased that we have a new report on infrastructure and a president who will likely help to influence this issue.”
Not all associations stand to benefit from Trump’s priorities. His stances on issues like healthcare, immigration, and climate change have organizations focused on those topics adjusting to a more difficult lobbying landscape.
Many science associations, for example, are watching the administration’s climate policy closely. At the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in December, thousands of scientists gathered to discuss what a Trump presidency might mean for science.
“We had 25,000 people in the room. It was an enormous meeting, and I would say there was a tremendous amount of angst,” says Lexi Shultz, AGU’s director of public affairs. “At one point, Trump said that climate change was a hoax, and he’s backtracked to some degree, but he has put forward names to head up key agencies that have expressed similar and skeptical views.”
AGU’s public affairs team is implementing a responsive and coordinated strategy that uses a variety of tactics to engage the public, the administration, and members of Congress.
“First, we started an online petition,” Shultz says. “After the election, AGU created a sign-on letter to reach the broader public, making it known that we want science in the White House.”
The petition, which was hosted on Change.org, calls on the new administration to appoint a White House science policy advisor who’s vetted and qualified for the job.
A public petition is an unusual move for AGU, Shultz says. Usually, its advocacy work is linked to members, but a public campaign was necessary, she says, to advance the interests of science as a whole.
In the process, AGU has developed strong alliances within the scientific community. The association is working with a variety of stakeholders, including universities, businesses, and grassroots campaigns.
“What we are saying is that science cannot be a political football,” Shultz says. “Science funding is a key concern right now, and we are trying to gain as many allies as we can through a networked approach.”
The network has buy-in from grassroots supporters too. In November, a group called 500 Women Scientists formed as a way for scientists to pledge their support for a more inclusive society with scientific research and enterprise at its heart. This group informally met at AGU’s annual meeting and organized in white lab coats at the Women’s March on Washington in January.
“Our strategy has been to frame the issues from a personal level,” Shultz says. “In these next four years there will be plenty of opportunities for us. We just have to make the strongest case.”
AGU talks to lawmakers about the importance of climate science at the state and local levels, explaining, for example, how an Iowa farmer uses climate forecasting data to plan for the growing season. Since many members of Congress are new to Capitol Hill, AGU schedules face-to-face meetings, where visitors deliver a “welcome letter” with information about science issues relevant to the member’s district.
“The whole point of our strategy is that we don’t take for granted that policymakers understand what a science association is,” Shultz says. “Some of our strategies may have changed, but our goal has always been the same: to develop strong relationships that are bipartisan and robust.”
As individual associations tune their lobbying strategies on their own issues, collectively they’re keeping an eye out for rule changes that might limit their ability to represent their members’ interests. ASCE’s Pallasch, who previously served as president of the American League of Lobbyists (eventually known as the Association of Government Relations Professionals, which shuttered in April 2016), says all associations should fight to protect an organization’s right to advocate.
“Remember, our job is a guaranteed First Amendment right, and we will fight to advance interests and ideas on important issues, like infrastructure,” he says. “We are prepared to band together on any attempts that try to change the way in which we advocate for our members.”