Lobbying Is Not Enough to Build Influence Among U.S. Lawmakers
Michael D. GottliebElise Gurney
DECEMBER 28, 2016

Posted in The Harvard Business Review, December 2016

Lobbying Is Not Enough to Build Influence Among U.S. Lawmakers

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As organizations shift their focus toward understanding and investing in their Washington brands, they add more structure and certainty to their government affairs strategies. By collecting and heeding the most relevant data—the feedback of policymakers—companies equip themselves to make the most informed decisions about their investments in Washington.

Every budget item should justify its existence. But when it comes to influencing federal policy, companies don’t always used the right yardstick—or any yardstick at all—for determining and improving return on investment. A firm may have seen success on past legislation, but how much of that outcome had to do with our company’s engagement? And how will we fare in the next policy fight? With so many moving parts in the policy space, determining a Washington strategy (and a budget) can seem equal parts art and luck.

Enter the concept of a Washington brand, which is the measure of a company’s long-term reputation and influence among the powerbrokers of DC—from K Street to Capitol Hill to the White House—who write the laws and regulations affecting corporate bottom lines. Just like consumer and employer brands, a Washington brand captures how the audience perceives a company, and how those perceptions influence their future behavior. Do these policymakers respect a given company? Do they care what that company thinks, and actually listen? Is that company their first call when they have a question? As it relates to DC, a strong brand offers an upper hand in influencing policy outcomes.

Importantly, that Washington brand can be measured, tracked, and analyzed. Through an annual survey of more than a thousand federal policymakers (and subsequent interviews with over 400), National Journal’s Policy Brand Research captures and quantifies Washington’s perceptions of 100 organizations across 15 industries, from energy to healthcare to technology. The last several years of this research have surfaced the specific activities and approaches to advocacy that can strengthen a Washington brand—and those that can’t.

Building a Strong Washington Brand

So how does a company build and maintain a strong Washington reputation? Not, as it turns out, through lobbying alone. Lobbying represents just one of twelve key activities that contribute to long-term efficacy and influence in Washington. But the best path forward depends on each organization’s unique situation, shaped in part by its corporate practices and the realities of the industry; a strategy that strengthens one company’s reputation can have the opposite effect on another. Crafting an optimal approach therefore requires a critical assessment of each organization’s strengths and weaknesses.

Consider a Fortune 100 company whose history of vocally opposing regulations landed it in the lower half of the Washington reputation ranking. National Journal’s Policy Brand Research identified this refusal to compromise as a major roadblock to the company’s Washington brand, and guided the organization toward a more collaborative posture—not just on rules and regulations, but around workforce development and diversity initiatives. Federal agency and White House staff in particular took note; they began inviting the company into conversations and seeking out its perspectives. Eventually, cross-Washington respect for the company’s input rose.

The outcome was drastically different for another Fortune 100 company that sought to boost its reputation in the wake of a corporate crisis. Without first assessing its standing in Washington, the company ran a high-profile ad campaign to promote its corporate social responsibility to policymakers. For a company that had already created a strong impression of its corporate conduct, this would have likely bolstered existing perceptions and provided a reputational boost. But this company enjoyed no such effect. Because it had failed to address the issue head-on, Washington influentials saw the campaign as nothing more than a public relations ploy that increased their existing skepticism.

As organizations shift their focus toward understanding and investing in their Washington brands, they add more structure and certainty to their government affairs strategies. By collecting and heeding the most relevant data—the feedback of policymakers—companies equip themselves to make the most informed decisions about their investments in Washington.

Companies have long relied on data-driven approaches to track and improve every other business function. Why should government affairs be any different?

Michael D. Gottlieb is Executive Director of National Journal’s Policy Brands Roundtable, a research and consulting firm that serves corporations and associations.