Tuesday, Nov. 6, 1 p.m. ET

K Street

Jeffrey Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 6, 2007; 1:00 PM

K Street columnist Jeffrey Birnbaum was online to discuss the intersection of business, politics and government on Tuesday, Nov. 6, at 1 p.m. ET.

A list of Birnbaum's columns can be found here.

A transcript follows.


Jeffrey Birnbaum: Hello everyone. Thanks for writing in. I wrote about a controversial tax break in my column today, Obama's K Street helpers and the definition of public affairs. I'm not sure we've actually nailed the public affairs question, or rather, its definition. If anyone out there has a suggestion, please send it in. I think it's still a little unclear, and it really doesn't have to be. In fact, if you have any questions or comments, write in, write often. I'm happy to field any questions or comments you might have.


Anonymous: Jeff, you're friends with many corporate public affairs executives in Washington. In your own mind, what do you think they do?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: I think that Stan Collender, who is quoted in my column, is pretty close to correct. Public affairs is a the effort by consultants to impact what government does. That may or may not include direct lobbying, but probably it doesn't. Then again, Doug Pinkham of the Public Affairs Council, has a broader definition. And, I guess, given the name of his very useful and well-regarded group, he ought to know.

He wrote to me that public affairs "represents an organization's efforts to monitor and manage its business environment. It combines government relations, communications, issues management and corporate citizenship strategies to influence public policy, build a strong reputation and find common ground with stakeholders."

This definition, he continued, reflects the fact that public affairs is interdisciplinary - it's not just lobbying or communications. Public affairs is focused on public policy issues AND the relationship of an organization to the rest of society. The smart companies out there understand, as you do, that public affairs is much more than government relations.

Well, that about covers it, don't you think? Actually, it probably doesn't. Please suggest an alternative!


Chevy Chase, MD 20815: Okay, but I think of these corporate honchos as the business equivalent of diplomats. In foreign affairs, diplomacy demands tact, a talent for negotiation,and skill in winning support from high levels in governments. So I submit that, when it comes to puffing up a job function, "corporate diplomacy" beats corporate public affairs hands down.

I'd corporate diplomacy far above "public diplomacy." Public diplomacy is simply another way of saying propaganda.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: I think public diplomacy is something different entirely. My understanding is that public diplomacy refers to, among other things, an effort by private citizens to spread the good news about our country to foreigners. And vice versa. Overseas visitors to our shores tend to have a much better view of Americans because they have met them first hand. When they go back to their countries they tell others that we aren't such a bad lot, and that improves the image of the U.S. abroad. I am told that that is an example of public diplomacy. That really is a useful effort, I think, but it is not the same at all as public affairs. Then again, you are correct diplomats and public affairs specialists do have a lot of the same skills and do very similar things--though for different clients. Lobbyists, too. Am I wrong?


Washington, D.C.: The President attended a GOP fundraiser at a Georgetown apartment last week. How does someone like, Bobby Pence, get the President to come to his home?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: I do not know who Mr. Pence is. But the president attends fundraisers all the time, though generally not small ones. He tends to draw a very large crowd, which is why he is used to raise funds so often. People give money to see the president, even from a distance, and they are willing to give even more money to have a photo taken with him, or to have him autograph a photo of himself, and the like. Can you tell us more about the fundraiser you are talking about? Maybe it was a party and not a fundraiser. The president goes to parties, too, or so at least I am told. Thanks!


chevy chase, md 20815: I do have an alternative for corporate public affairs: corporate diplomacy. It flows more trippingly on the tongue, and its much more accurate.

Think about it: Corporate diplomacy is grassroots deep, community-based and conducted via the passports of company executives whose purviews often range the world.

Corporate social responsibility is nurtured under the umbrella of corporate diplomacy.

Crisis management, generally considered the work of government diplomats, is a corporate PR function, too. Think how America's companies have reacted so much faster and more effectively than, say, FEMA.

Transparency, in the world of corporate diplomacy, is the guiding principle. That makes it the polar opposite of how government public diplomacy is so often practiced.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Nice suggestion. It certainly sounds better than some of the other alternatives I've heard, and a few of the others I wrote about. I do think that it might sound a tad too nice, however. Even PR folks might blanch at the notion of referring to themselves as corporate diplomats. Or maybe not. Any other alternatives out there? Don't be shy!


Chevy Chase, Md. 20815: In today's column, you quote a colleague who uses the term "flak" for public relations. Actually, Jeff, it's "lack"

Flak was the bursts of enemy fire our aviators encountered in World War II. Flak was shorthand for a long German word for the gun that fired the shots.

Flack is shorthand for public relations guy or publicist. It was used before World War II, and started as a sort of homage to Gene Flack, a very successful PR promoter of films and Sunshine cupcakes, among things. Example: "John Doe is flacking Clark Gable's latest."

Jeffrey Birnbaum: You may be right, but my editor, Lenny Bernstein, and I checked a few dictionary entries yesterday and decided that the accepted shorthand for PR person was flak, without the "c". But I am more than willing to bow to you. If "flack" predated "flak" in the lexicon, at least historically, then I stand corrected. Thank you.


Chevy chase, Md.: Jeff, public affairs is one of the subsets of public relations. It's in there with marketing (which has become quite dominant in recent years), communications, community relations, lobbying. I'll bet, though, there are many of your readers who are ashamed to acknowledge that.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: You may be right, but I do find a large number of people in the business of influencing government who are not shy at all about what they do. In fact, given the growing importance of professional societies that educate people about these disciplines, lobbying, public affairs or whatever you want to call it has become both acceptable and much more transparent. And not many people are ashamed. Do you disagree?


Chevy Chase, Md.: "Advocate" is an underused word for public affairs practitioner. At the core, that, of course, is the function of the public affairs executive...not only in Washington but in the cities, counties and states where business is active. But there's a drawback: "Advocate" is considered another word for the dreaded "lobbyist."

Not many substitutes out there, are there?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: I've heard some alternatives, but I can't mention them in this public forum. Any suggestions?


Alexandria, Virginia: Now that Duke Cunningham and his gang of thieves are in the clink, which member(s) of Congress will step in and provide the bribe-givers, (oops, I meant lobbyists) of K Street with a nice fee-schedule list of how much will be charged in order to purchase a vote? Cunningham's method was refreshingly simple..."My vote on this bill will cost $$$", and everyone knows he wasn't/isn't the only one to do so. Who's next?

Many thanks from the real world!

washingtonpost.com: Contractor in Cunningham Case Found Guilty on All Counts (Post, Nov. 6, 2007)

Jeffrey Birnbaum: If I knew who would be next, I would be quite a soothsayer, which I'm not. What I do know is that there are lots and lots of dedicated Justice Department investigators and attorneys around the country who are focusing on public corruption. I would be surprised if other members of Congress and former staffers aren't roped into some serious cases and soon.


Chevy Chase, Md., 20815: I've been called a flack by hacks and a hack by flacks. It never bothered me. Matter of fact, some of the media guys I know have used it for me, and they are friends. Flack is never going away just because some in PR hate it. People in the business are just too hung up on job titles.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: I agree with your last comment. Also, "flack" is shorter, which makes it the most American title to use. Ever notice that men's names are almost always cut down to a single syllable? Ease of use, that's what we're all about.


Chevy Chase, Md. PR people tend to be a bit thin-skinned when it comes to terminology. The Public Relations Society of America does "PR for PR" campaign, trying to explain to editors and others just what public relations is.

They keep at it. The problem persists.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: That's a presentation I would like to see. Thanks again!


Jeffrey Birnbaum: Thanks for writing in. I'm not sure we settled the question about what public affairs is, but I doubt there's ever been more thorough, or, maybe, longer discussion on the topic. Let's see if we can do this again in a couple weeks. Thanks! And cheers.


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