When I first became head of communications for a Fortune 500 corporation and got acquainted with my peers at other major companies, I was in for a shock. Most of them, I discovered, held government relations at arm’s length, trying to stay as far removed as they could from the work of their lobbyists. The two functions – public relations and government relations – not only operated separately in most companies, they rarely even conferred with each other.
I, on the other hand, have always believed that silos belong on the farm, not in corporations.
Perhaps it’s just that I’ve been a creature of Washington for most of my professional life. To me, government relations and public relations should be as tightly knit together as the fingers of a catcher’s mitt. That’s how I’ve seen them operate in my prior existences – first, as a newspaper political reporter and then as vice president for communications at one of the nation’s largest trade associations, the American Petroleum Institute.
At API, I was in charge of not just communications in the narrow sense but opinion research, coalition-building, grassroots organizing, community relations and advertising – all the building blocks of a well-integrated public affairs program except lobbying itself. All these functions should be seen as complementary tools for achieving a common goal – and that goal is to mold public views and public action to further the interests of the company, its shareholders and its employees. Government relations and public relations shouldn’t be distant cousins. They really are twins.
Just about everyone seems these days to be using this integrated approach – from the Sierra Club, the AFL-CIO and the National Rifle Association to the World Council of Churches, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Girl Scouts. Everyone, it seems, except corporations.
My own – the Entergy Corporation – is different and, I’d like to think, less hide-bound and change-resistant than some others. I, for instance, have an office, as vice president for communications, at our corporate headquarters in New Orleans. But I spend only about one-third of my time there. My real base is in Washington, something almost no other communications vice president for a Fortune 500 company can say.
Washington is critically important to my company these days, much more so than when I joined it almost 10 years ago. We are part of a heavily regulated industry so we have to maintain relationships not just with the White House and Congress but with an alphabet soup of federal departments and agencies. As a result, I’m much more a Washingtonian than I am a New Orleanian. My D.C. office actually adjoins that of our government relations vice president. That’s how closely we work I’m not a lobbyist myself but I coordinate our communications programs to support and underpin our lobbying efforts. My portfolio includes not just internal and external communications, but community relations, advertising, opinion research – many of those “building block” functions of government and public relations integration I mentioned earlier.
Entergy’s integrated approach has proven useful not just in policy issues but in all kinds of crises. We used it in our long fight to keep operating our Indian Point nuclear plant outside New York City despite 9/11 concerns about terrorism, and we used it in coping with the hurricanes that devastated our utility territory in Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas in 2005 and 2008.
My CEO, once rarely seen in Washington, now is here often. He’s a passionate advocate of government controls on greenhouse gases. So he’s made a half dozen trips to town just this year to try and persuade politicians, regulators, think-tanks and the media on the climate change issue.
The same marriage of government relations and public relations that I’ve been discussing holds true where state government is concerned. So we use integrated communications to support our lobbyists in capital cities from Austin to Boston.
Public relations and government relations must – not should, but must – work together. The Government’s role in managing the economy and regulating nearly every aspect of human existence has been growing since Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency more than 100 years ago. Since then it has ballooned larger and larger, under both Democratic and Republican administrations. It’s being accelerated still more by the new Obama White House, which is far more activist, interventionist and regulation-minded than any administration since at least Lyndon Johnson’s. That’s not a political judgment – it’s just a plain fact.
So I may be a rarity right now as a corporate communications vice president based in Washington, D.C. But I may not be lonely for very long.
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