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[Interview] The Role of Public Affairs & Government in Marketing Communications

Mike Fulton

In our roles as communicators, we seek to help our clients and organizations solve problems or enhance their image with purpose. This can include seeking funding, increasing positive visibility, and motivating key audiences to act. IMC and DMC professionals might be surprised to know the multiple benefits of working with government.

With our guest, Mike Fulton, we will explore recent real-world case studies and the many benefits organizations have achieved by tapping into government resources and opportunities. Results speak volumes — grants awarded; third-party validation of products, services and programs; successful nominations of federal advisory committee members; earned media placements; social media support; and the receipt of proactive ideas from government officials.

Fulton teaches IMC 638 - Public Affairs at West Virginia University. He's the director of Asher Agency’s Washington D.C. office and has more than 30 years of business networking, government relations, and communications experience.

Mike Lynch: Why are you so optimistic about why clients should engage with government? Particularly in this time of partisanship, apathy, gridlock, people seem to be at odds.

Mike Fulton: Public affairs is by far one of the most beneficial yet overlooked tactics in this strategic communications world. These tactics can add a new dimension to a campaign or push an issue or a project over the finish line. Results speak volumes, and I’ve seen grants awarded, third-party validation of product services and programs, successful nominations of our clients to federal advisory boards, earned media placement, members of Congress supporting organizations on social media. Even in times of divisiveness, you still want to be involved with government.

Mike Podcast

ML: Could you give us a few examples of incidences you've run into where the government has either helped or hurt?

MF: I get asked this question a lot, so I decided to write a column for the Public Relations Society of America, a 10-question quiz for all communicators and clients to look at 10 specific strategies that they might utilize in their public relations and strategic communications campaigns.

1. Would a popular mayor, governor, senator, or other public figure enhance your message platform by mentioning your client and its interests or product service in a favorable way?

2. Would tax incentives, training dollars, or other government inducements benefit your client?

3. Would making your client's product or service the gold standard through legislation or rule-making boosts sales?

4. Is there a regulation rule-making process or a bill that you'd like to stop in its tracks?

5. We know how to do that. Would a government contract or a subcontract opportunity please your client?

6. Would oversight of a competing product, process or service shine the light on irregularities that would be helpful to your client and your group?

7. What about a coalition of like-minded companies, trade associations, or nonprofit organizations working together to carry your campaign messages?

8. How about if you had your client appointed to a government advisory committee where he or she could sit at the table with the federal agency people that oversee their agency or fund their agency and help them make priorities?

9. What about a government award or a proclamation that would recognize your company and boosts your reputation?

10. And then, always one of the most popular areas is in funding. Would additional funding through a grant loan or other financing mechanism jumpstart a project program or add to the outreach effort for your client?

For most every profession, product or service, issue or individuals seeking to be positioned as a trusted leader, one or more of these public affairs tactics can greatly enhance the overall success of your goals. Government should be used or be viewed as an asset and not as a liability in the integrated marketing communications community. I encourage strategic communicators all over to look at these opportunities, not to overlook them.

ML: Can you tell a story with data? When you go to government, is the data even more important or is it the personal connection you make? Are they data-driven like everybody else?

MF: Data is very important, and the more you can boil it down to the common denominator of the constituency, the government official serves, the more beneficial it will be. So, if it would be a mayor, they would be more concerned about the city limits and the people that live within the city limits. If it's a county commissioner, it could be expanded out to the county. If it's a governor or a U.S. Senator, then statewide data would be very helpful. If you walk in and talk about something that's going on in Africa, and there is no connection to their district, then you must look for another connection like a committee assignment, a congressional caucus they serve on. You're always looking for not only data that shows why this problem needs their attention among all the other programs and projects that are going on, but you also need to connect it to that person. You try to tie your government relations or your issue-based communications to data, geographies, and connectivity to the individuals that you're trying to reach. You may only need one or two champions to get something to happen quietly behind the scenes.

ML: Can you give me an example or two how a client has used public affair tactics to make a significant difference in the way they're doing business?

MF: We did a digital campaign in 2018 at Asher for a nonprofit that focuses on battery recycling. Lead acid batteries in our vehicles are the most recycled commodity in the world. In North America, 99% of batteries are recycled and 98% of that battery can be reused. So, that reduces the cost to the consumer and the cost to the manufacturer. Our client wanted to appeal to consumers to recycle the remaining 1% that are still not recycled every year and that represents two million batteries.

So, we created the 2 Million Battery campaign, developed a hashtag, a landing page on their website, a digital strategy that had both social media and paid search and other paid advertising components for the client. We targeted to the states that had our partnering retailers, these automotive retailers that would accept the batteries. And we launched the campaign on Capitol Hill with the U.S. Senate auto caucus. Senator Rob Portman of Ohio was instrumental in helping facilitate the meeting. We did a panel discussion with our client moderating, and we had an audience of congressional aids, federal agencies, trade associations, and company representatives that were in Washington, and it was just a great kickoff to this campaign that generated some compelling numbers.

We ended up reaching 7.3 million people in 2018 in just 10 months with our message. If even we only needed a portion of them to recycle a battery to hit our goal. So, it was really quite compelling. The government also cares a lot about the next generation of batteries that will be in electric cars, hydrogen vehicles, and solar panels. Energy storage is a huge issue, and batteries play a big role in this, so government at all levels is quite interested in supplying our energy demand.

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WVU's AOE in Public Relations Leadership:

West Virginia University’s Reed College of Media offers an Area of Emphasis (AOE) in Public Relations Leadership, existing within the larger framework of the Integrated Marketing Communications (IMC) graduate program.

By pursuing a specialization like Public Relations Leadership along with your graduate degree in IMC, you are positioning yourself as a T-shaped marketer, which makes you much more valuable given your combination of specialized and general training in marketing communications theory.

If you're interested in learning more about pursuing the IMC degree at WVU as well as the AOE in Public Relations Leadership, we encourage you to request more information today!