Ads of Steel -- Results After Just Moments a Day

By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Tuesday, November 27, 2007

It's one of the biggest questions on K Street: Do expensive advertising campaigns, lately so prevalent in Washington, actually buy influence? The answer, according to the American Iron and Steel Institute, is yes.

In March 2006, the steel lobby launched what turned out to be a $3 million effort to advertise its way into the hearts of Washington elites. It bought a ton of ads in print, on radio and online. It also placed them in the D.C. Metro -- especially the stops for Capitol Hill -- where government employees could see them twice a day.

In other words, the ads were, basically, everywhere. You might remember one in particular, "The Backbone of America" ad, which pictured a man's naked back with a steel structure as his spine. "America's world-class steel industry generates 1.2 million jobs and contributes $350 billion to our economy," it read. "Steel is the backbone of American manufacturing."

This effort was reinforced with briefings of officials on Capitol Hill and efforts, many of them successful, to get the campaign's message into the popular press.

Polling by Harris Interactive confirmed that the exercise made a difference. The survey company found a 14 percentage point jump in the number of "elite" Washingtonians who had once seen the steel industry as old, dirty and outdated and now see it as modern, high-tech and clean. In addition, the percentage of respondents who know that steel is the world's most recycled material has risen seven points since 2006.

"We are making significant headway," said Nancy Gravatt, vice president of communications for the Iron and Steel Institute. "Our campaign is definitely reaching the people we were trying to target."

What does the group hope to do with its shiny new reputation? For one thing, it wants the federal government to purchase steel more regularly. It thinks that greater knowledge about steel recyclabililty will help there.

It also hopes that Congress will pass legislation that would sanction China and other countries that, it says, undervalue their currencies to the detriment of products such as steel. That would certainly be a solid accomplishment, as well as the real test of whether all that advertising actually worked.

And not all ads work. "A lot of money is wasted on Washington ads," warned Douglas G. Pinkham, president of the Public Affairs Council. "Less expensive methods can often have a greater impact."

When Being Republican Isn't Enough

Susan Molinari is a Republican aristocrat. She succeeded her father, Guy V. Molinari (R-N.Y.), as a House member; she is married to former congressman Bill Paxon (R-N.Y.), and she delivered the keynote speech to the Republican National Convention in 1996.

But that's not enough anymore, now that the Democrats are in charge on Capitol Hill. The lobbying firm she heads, the Washington Group, last week retained the executive search firm Christian & Timbers to look for a senior Democrat, probably a former member of Congress, to head the firm along with Molinari.

"They've concluded they want to be more bipartisan. They want a counterweight to her [Molinari]," said Peter T. Metzger, vice chairman of Christian & Timbers. Specifically, he said, they want "a proven former member who's shown some business acumen -- someone who can be a revenue contributor."

This is the firm's second major stab at bipartisanship this year. In April, it noted that it had hired more Democrats, promoted a Democrat already on the payroll and created a joint venture with a firm that had a Democratic principal. Its Web site advertises that "bipartisanship is the order of the day."

Molinari says she is eager to go further and find a new partner. "I'm looking forward to sharing the reins," she said. Given the political situation in Washington, she added, "it makes sense" that the person should be a Democrat.

The search will probably go quickly, Metzger said: "We know the people we want to talk to." But who that is, he's not saying.

Hire of the Week

The revolving door doesn't only connect government and the outside world. It is also a portal between lobbying shops.

A decade ago, Tad Segal was a lowly account manager at Widmeyer Communications, a public relations firm with offices in D.C. and New York. One of his clients was United Parcel Service.

Today, Segal has returned to Widmeyer as a senior vice president in charge of its seven-person public affairs practice. In between, he served as, among other things, communications director of UPS.

"As a former employee and client," he said, "I can say I know Widmeyer Communications inside and out."

He is also proof that the way up is often out in the nation's capital.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company