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‘Inside Game’ Is Not Enough

By Alan Crawford

Originally published in the Public Affairs Council‘s March 2013 Impact Newsletter.

The “inside game” on which lobbyists have relied for decades, and maybe centuries, is no longer sufficient in public affairs today, according to Anita Dunn, former White House communications director. Speaking in January at the Council’s Public Affairs Institute in Laguna Beach, Calif., Dunn said that relying on personal relationships with other “insiders” — while important — just isn’t good enough.

The “‘outside game’ drives the inside game,” so direct lobbying that depends primarily on networks of acquaintances to achieve even a finite legislative or regulatory “fix” cannot succeed in the long term, she said.

Every organization that hopes to achieve its goals must regard any specific lobbying initiative as a kind of political campaign, a subject about which Dunn has personal knowledge. Now managing director at SKDKnickerbocker, a strategic communications firm in Washington, Dunn was the chief strategist for Sen. Bill Bradley’s 2000 presidential campaign and, in 2006, worked for then-Sen. Barack Obama’s political action committee, the Hope Fund. In 2008, she joined Obama’s presidential campaign, serving as senior advisor, and was the White House communications director from April through November 2009.

‘Instantaneous’ News

Every public affairs effort, no matter how targeted to an inside-the-Beltway goal, should include a “public strategy,” Dunn said, if only to prevent opponents from portraying your cause in unflattering terms. Transparency is no longer an option. It is a fact of life, just as digital media is now “dominant,” giving everyone the equivalent of his or her own 24-hour news channel. “If something gets out there,” she said, “it’s instantaneous everywhere.”

“There used to be a dynamic where business got done in Washington, and the rest of the country didn’t know much about it,” Dunn said. “It used to be that there was no way to find out.” Today, there are infinite ways to ferret out and disseminate information. Established institutions and the people who staff them — the key to old-school lobbying — have themselves declined in importance. The public no longer trusts experts.

Bottom-Up Media

The political parties, meanwhile, have diminished in influence, while the news media have become increasingly balkanized and ideological. What Dunn called the media “ecosystem” was once “top heavy”; but “now, the gatekeepers have been diminished, and we have a bottom-up system. News organizations keep shrinking and offering buy-outs, which reduces reportorial experience.”

Reporters who have to update their stories throughout the day have less time for serious investigative journalism. Whether they are working on such stories or not, scandals can surface, and rumors alone can damage your cause. Bad stories “move through Washington very quickly,” Dunn warned, and must be countered immediately. “Speed kills,” she said.

To be effective in Washington, “you need to create a ‘public permission structure,’” Dunn said. That means framing an issue in ways that give an elected official permission to take your side and still remain true to his or her previous positions, principles and commitments. It can also mean staying above the partisan fray in an increasingly polarized town. “When you make an issue partisan,” Dunn said, “you make it almost impossible to get it passed.”

Smart policy messaging depends on “shared values” that appeal to a community’s greater needs, she said.

Created more than 30 years ago, the Public Affairs Institute brings together world-class faculty and mid-to-senior-level public affairs professionals for intensive weeklong sessions over three consecutive years.

In addition to Dunn, members of the 2013 faculty included Bruce Bartlett, former deputy assistant secretary for economic policy at the Treasury Department and author of The Benefit and the Burden: Tax Reform — Why We Need It and What It Will Take; Pat Cox, former president of the European Parliament; and Ron Elving, senior Washington editor for NPR.

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