PR Training

Getting Your Message Heard in Washington, D.C.

How do you cut through all the clutter and successfully compete to get your message through? It surely is not easy. But it is also not impossible. Here are the top five most valuable sources of information according to Hill staff.

Editor’s Note: Dr. David K. Rehr is moderating the panel “Getting Heard in Washington: Communication Strategies That Work,” with featured guests Anna Palmer, senior reporter/columnist, Politico and Jeffrey Davis, senior vice president, AARP at the PRSA 2014 International Conference on Monday, Oct. 13, from 1011:15 a.m. The following is a guest post previewing their session.

2014 PRSA International PR Conference banner

What kind of communication is received on Capitol Hill?

Imagine you work on Capitol Hill, either as an elected member of Congress or as a congressional staffer.  Every day, literally tens of thousands of constituents, special interest groups, non-profit organizations, private business interests, embassy representatives or academic experts send you messages to impact your decision-making on public policy issues being considered in the U.S. Congress.

Just the daily number of emails you receive in your inbox is overwhelming.  You will receive an average of 134 emails a day; you might be one of the lucky Hill staff that receives more than 1,000 per day.

Now add all the other points of communication contact people have with you:  personal advocacy visits, mail, phone calls, texts, briefing paper ‘drop-offs’ and even messages being delivered to you indirectly on the TV you have on in your office as background noise or commercials you hear on your digital radio accessible through your computer.

That is a lot of information clutter you experience day in and day out.   You realize that the amount of information coming ‘at you’ keeps increasing with your congressional tenure.

What about those attempting to educate or influence you?

There is more competition for the time and attention for members of Congress and congressional staff than ever before:  9,927 registered lobbyists; 3,450 lobbying firms; 72,000 trade associations; 1,500,000 non-profits; 4,038 Political Action Committees; 1,000+ public affairs firms; a grassroots ‘explosion’ with 64% of organizations bringing to Washington their membership so members of Congress and their staff are visited by real constituents from back home.  These ‘influencers’ don’t include the estimated 100,000 underground advocates who do not register as official lobbyists but still affect public policy.

How do you cut through all the clutter and successfully compete to get your message through?

It surely is not easy.  But it is also not impossible.  Research indicates that building a strategy that includes getting your messaging posted successfully on the internet; including your information in Congressional Research Service (CRS) Reports and even educating other staff (as a ‘bank shot’ to get visibility) work.  Here are the top five most valuable sources of information according to Hill staff:

#1 – CRS

#2 – Academic/Issue Experts

#3 – Congressional Budget Office (CBO)

#4 – Capitol Hill Staffers

#5 – Relevant Federal Agencies

Does your communication strategy impact these elements?  Moreover, do you have to have an effective communications strategy that gives you an edge in the competitive arena in Washington?  Is your communication powerful, simple, and repeatable?  Is it being delivered in an authentic and memorable way?

Have you considered where Capitol Hill goes to find information and what sources they respect?  We know, for example, that congressional staffers place a lower priority on social media for policy information relative to hearing from academic or issues experts.  Once your know those sources, do you have a strategy to ensure your talking points are included and your position articulated.

Want to communicate more effectively in Washington? 

Begin by assessing your assumptions about those on Capitol Hill.  We know that legislators are not generally experts (so you cannot communicate over them).  We know that the congressional process forces even the most considerate individuals on Capitol Hill to be focus on the short-term.  Hill staffs are often relatively young with short tenure in their positions.  We know that partisanship (unfortunately for America) is quite real.  And we always have to view any communications through the lens of the legislator seeking to win re-election or move up in his or her political career.

Shameless Promotion?

Here is where the shameless promotion comes.  Join us at the PRSA 2014 International Conference, Leading the Way: A Fearless Future for PR, October 12-14, where we will have a fantastic panel on “Getting Heard in Washington:  Communication Strategies That Work.”  Our experts will talk about what works and what doesn’t to impact public policy.  It will be engaging, insightful and we’ll have lots of fun!

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