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Washington Media Trend: Niche firms take on PR giants

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

Small Washington-based public affairs firms are going after business typically won by large agencies. They lure clients with political expertise capable of handling crisis communications, and then expand those partnerships by creating full-scale agencies that can do everything from digital ad placement, to media booking.

Why it matters: They're taking business from NY agencies and the big traditional PR shops. Corporate media consulting and ad dollars are moving from Madison Avenue to Pennsylvania Avenue.

Timing: Political experts have been launching public affairs groups after leaving the public sector for years, but the trend has expanded with the digital ad tech boom in 2012-2013 and following the 2016 election.

State of play:

  • On the right(*), firms like IMGE (see more below) and S-3 Public Affairs have added digital capabilities to political messaging and crisis communications expertise to create nimble, one-stop agencies for corporations and interest groups looking to tackle complex corporate affairs messaging in-house. Firms like CRAFT and Targeted Victory that focus on digital have added media booking and legislative public affairs, respectively.
  • On the left(*), firms like Bully Pulpit Interactive (Obama and Hillary's digital agency) acquired "The Incite Agency" this year, a communications firm to win and retain large corporate businesses, like AirBNB and Exelon. SKDKnickerbocker, a progressive public affairs firm that born out of a communications and consulting merger, and has scaled to include ad buying and creative services to serve clients like AT&T, in addition to political clients.
  • (*Though started by political operatives from one side or the other, as they grow the firms often hire from the other side of the aisle.)

Sound smart at happy hour: Glover Park Group, founded by ex-Clinton aides in 2001, is probably the biggest and most notable example of this trend. The firm manages media campaigns for some of the biggest corporations, like United Health Group (and is now owned by global PR giant WPP.)

Here's what some of the key players in Washington have to say about the landscape.

  • "We approach everything like a political campaign," says Amos Snead, founder and CEO of S-3 Public Affairs. "Clients benefit from our collective expertise in winning campaigns, navigating the halls of Congress, and working closely with national media. The narrative is moving quickly so it is essential that your media team understands the policy and knows the influential players. It only makes sense to have each of these expertise represented on one team."
  • "If you're a brand, you cant just wait for the circus," says Andrew Bleeker, founder and partner at Bully Pulpit Interactive. "You need experts who've done this before, who can manage your brand in real-time."
  • "The communications consultancy environment has gotten more competitive," says Robert Rehg, Head of Edelman's Washington DC office. "Not only are consultancies moving into the communications space more aggressively but media companies are themselves too (brand agencies)," Rehg said, referring to consulting groups like McKinsey and PriceWaterhouseCoopers.
  • p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 16.0px Times; color: #4a4a4a; -webkit-text-stroke: #4a4a4a; background-color: #ffffff} span.s1 {font-kerning: none} "There was a financial reluctance in New York to get into advocacy campaigns," says Patrick Dorton, CEO of Rational 360. "Washington largely worked on a retainer model instead of high-end billing, which worked when dealing with unexpected political crisis communications."

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