Under The Radar, Public Relations' Political Savvy Public relations is known as the business of promoting a product or a personality. But — in Washington D.C., at least — PR pros can be just as strategic in creating buzz for better behavior — or for policy change. Political advocacy, it turns out, is like any other PR: You try and get your message across any way you can.

Under The Radar, PR's Political Savvy

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When it comes to the inner workings of Washington, D.C., we often hear about lobbyists influencing the political process. There's another time tested profession that works just as hard trying to do much the same thing: Public relations. In our series examining the PR industry, NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports on the Capital's agenda-driven messengers who are also trying to shape public policy.

ELIZABETH BLAIR: First, what is the difference between lobbying and public relations? For starters, lobbyists have to disclose their activities. PR professionals do not. But they do work together.

Mr. DAVID FUSCUS (Xenophon Strategies): The metaphor I like to use is D-Day at World War II.

BLAIR: David Fuscus runs Xenophon Strategies which does both PR AND lobbying.

Mr. FUSCUS: Everybody's seen the footage of the landing craft coming in with house on the hill in Normandy. Well those guys in landing craft are the lobbyists. They're getting ready to hit the beaches to go try to convince somebody to do something.

BLAIR: The lobbyists' target: Capitol Hill. But Fuscus says the PR folks deploy first.

Mr. FUSCUS: The communications, we're there about two weeks before. We're the Air Force. We're conditioning the legislative landscape for them to go in and do it.

BLAIR: For them, conditioning the legislative landscape means trying to shape public perception. So their primary target: Journalists, like Lyndsey Layton who writes for The Washington Post.

Ms. LYNDSEY LAYTON (Journalist, Washington Post): I'll get a dozen emails or phone calls in a day. So it's a pretty regular drumbeat of folks who want to put a bug in my ear.

BLAIR: Lyndsey Layton covers food safety. So let's use that as the landscape. In particular, let's use the battle for attention over the controversial chemical BPA.

(Soundbite of News montage)

Unidentified Woman #1: Research has shown that BPA can act like the hormone estrogen...

Unidentified Man: There will be high level hearings tomorrow on this chemical called Bisphenol A which may be...

Unidentified Woman: #2: The FDA is saying the chemical is of come concern...

BLAIR: Conditioning journalists on the BPA debate are - on one side - the American Chemistry Council, where Anne Womack-Kolton represents chemical companies.

Ms. ANNE WOMACK-KOLTON (American Chemistry Council): The art of public affairs is telling your side of the story in as many as ways as you can to create that echo chamber around whatever target you're trying to reach.

BLAIR: One the other side, there's Alex Formusis of the Environmental Working Group.

Mr. ALEX FORMUSIS (Environmental Working Group): We provide media outlets, whether they're mainstream media or new media, with our research and they often times report on it.

Ms. LAYTON: The two of them have a pretty strong PR apparatus.

BLAIR: In Washington, one weapon to generate news: a new study. And you shove it at a journalist like Lyndsey Layton.

Ms. LAYTON: I'll get an email or a phone call from either side saying hey, did you see this new Canadian study that says BPA is completely safe; or hey, did you see that in Australian this university has found all these study health effects associated with BPA. And so, I'm just getting, just over the transom, you know, scientific data pouring in from each side and they're trying to use it to the their advantage, and to support their argument.

BLAIR: The advocacy war in Washington is not fought on a level field. It's often a case of a grant-funded public interest group going up against a mammoth commercial industry. Michael Jacobson is a veteran. He's been running the Center for Science in the Public Interest for 40 years.

Mr. MICHAEL JACOBSON: A group like ours - most non-profit groups - don't have the money to sponsor television commercials or full page print ads like you see coming from chemical companies or soft drink companies.

BLAIR: Along with its own scientific studies, Jacobson tries to come up with catchy slogans.

Mr. JACOBSON: Fettuccine alfredo was a heart attack on a plate. Movie theater popcorn was the Godzilla of snack foods. Little slogans that have stuck - for good reason.

BLAIR: And they work.

(Soundbite of newscast)

Unidentified Woman: And now to the eye-popping amount of calories and fat in movie popcorn. Researchers tested samples from the country's three largest theater chains and NBC's Michael...

BLAIR: In 1994, sales of movie popcorn plummeted and a lot of theaters changed the kind of oil they used. The fight for attention is so intense today, advocacy groups are using more and more sophisticated tactics: Using social media like Facebook and Twitter, aggressively targeting lawmakers' constituents at home, or throwing parties on Capitol Hill to promote your industry. Political advocacy is like any kind of PR: You try and get your message across any way you can.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News, Washington.

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