The latest from our friend and colleague Frank Salinger in our nation’s capital. He is good enough to mention Keymer in this installment. Follow frank on Twitter @annapolislawyer


May/June 2013

Baghdad Bob, Cool Hand Luke, and Telling Your Story in Washington

This has been a difficult Washington Letter to write. I originally planned to focus on Benghazi until the IRS’s political operation against the Tea Party surfaced so I redid the Letter. Then the AP wiretapping story broke and I decided the focus shouldn’t be on still unfolding scandals, but rather how and why effective communications matters in Washington.

Whatever the lessons of the last few weeks, the performance of the hapless White House Press Secretary Jay Carney has been an object lesson in how not to do your job. I’m actually not unsympathetic to the situation he finds himself in, since I suspect he’s in the dark about much of what goes on.

It doesn’t help that replacing the avuncular Robert Gibbs with the always smirking Carney, who comes across like a silent movie actor playing Dennis the Menace, doesn’t help the Administration, but it may not be his fault. Press Secretaries, with the exception of the legendary Pierre Salinger (who had an integral role in defusing the Cuban Missile Crisis) don’t make policy.

That’s why their talking points often sound like they are channeling Saddam Hussein’s Information
Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf (remembered as “Baghdad Bob”) or Nixon Press Secretary Ron Ziegler who called Watergate a “third rate burglary.”

Having worked in Delaware for years, I feel a little sorry for Carney since his last job was heading Joe
Biden’s communications shop. It’s the kind of sympathy I have for abused spouses or abandoned pets (my sympathy is ameliorated by Carney’s marriage to the overtly anti-Republican ABC Reporter Claire Shipman).

As Strother Martin’s Captain said in Cool Hand Luke: “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate” universally misquoted as “a” failure.

All this makes brings to mind the essence of advocacy whether before the White House press corps or
Congress or the agencies: clear communications. This is a lesson Jay Carney evidently forgot.

In 1967, Marshall McLuhan became famous for writing The Medium is the Message. Like so much from The Sixties, it turned out to be nonsense. The message is the message, we just have more choices of medium. While I don’t like the word “messaging” (particularly as a verb), I’m going to join the 1990s and use it.
Legislative and regulatory advocacy requires understanding the substance of an issue and the distillation of your position into a clear, truthful message. While most messaging to Capitol Hill is, at least, pretty good, much in the regulatory arena is awful. While much is inescapably hyper-technical (and I’ve drafted some impenetrable prose, especially when a client’s inside counsel helpfully becomes engaged), at the end of the day regulatory comments should tell a story.

George Bernard Shaw said Britain and America are “two nations divided by a common language” and it’s
no different when business and government try to communicate. You are used to dealing with 13 week quarters. Washington deals in two year sessions. You are used to strict budgeting. Congress hasn’t passed a budget in, well, forever. You answer to shareholders and owners. Congress answers to voters.

This means crafting your message in terms understandable to a political audience and you need to be
aware agencies are just as political as Congress.

My good friend and PR maven Simon Keymer speaks of using a holistic approach to communications. He’s absolutely right. Your message must be consistent throughout your communications. In today’s transparent world, when everything is common knowledge, telling Congress or an agency that a bill or rule will all but destroy your business while your company’s SEC filings describe the same law or regulation as an insignificant matter is guaranteed to get you in trouble.

There are also reminders that messaging has many, and occasionally unintended, audiences. I remember in the run-up to the passage of the 2008 Emergency Economic Stabilization Act (the Wall Street “rescue” or “bailout” depending on your ideological bent) when, the night before the House was to take up the bill, the Securities Industry & Financial Markets Association held a conference call between Wall Street analysts and the Department of the Treasury to discuss the then pending legislation.

It didn’t go well—the analysts described Congressional efforts to toughen the bill as “deal breakers” as if they were negotiating an acquisition rather than begging for relief. It may have been the appropriate response—I suspect it was even true except, in an era where anything can and does go viral, the call ended up on YouTube.

How did I find out? I received the link from a Congressional staffer whose boss opposed the bill. That was an object lesson on lobbying in an era when anything may end up in every computer in the country.

Finally, don’t hide bad news. If you are laying off employees (or, as they are known on Capitol Hill, constituents), tell your elected officials. It may be a painful call for your lobbyist, but it’s far better than having your Senator learn of it from a newspaper article, blog posting or a tweet from a laid off employee.

Rest assured, you and your team will be better at this than Jay Carney.

Let’s get started.

Frank Salinger