In 2010, Washington’s 10 largest lobby shops recorded a banner year, raking in a collective $260 million in lobbying revenue as they scrambled to influence lawmakers on major health care and Wall Street reform. But 2011 has been noticeably quieter, with the majority of those firms reporting year-over-year declines in lobby income.
Now, with Congress gridlocked over the debt ceiling and an election year on the horizon — historically slower on the lobbying front until the last quarter — some firms are increasingly chasing work that doesn’t fall under the traditional definition of lobbying in order to boost their bottom line. The move to beef up federal marketing, communications and consulting is especially evident among independent lobbying firms that aren’t housed within law firms, the latter of which can offset lobbying dropoffs with fees from litigation, regulatory work and representing clients in government investigations.
At Quinn Gillespie & Associates, public relations, communications and branding make up about 40 percent of the firm’s revenue — double the ratio from a year ago, said John Feehery, president of the firm’s communications and director of government affairs.
Feehery characterized such work as “talking generally” about issues that matter to the firm’s clients, which include Wells Fargo, Brazilian aircraft manufacturer Embraer and The Science Coalition, a group of universities advocating for more federal funding for medical and engineering research.
“That’s the biggest part of our growth,” Feehery said. “It’s the only part of our growth because lobbying is down.”
QGA’s lobbying income has dropped steadily in the past five years, falling from $18 million in 2006 to $12.3 million in 2010, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
“Direct lobbying is not nearly as important right now as communicating in a general sense on policy goals, to set the stage,” Feehery said. “Strategic communication will become more important next year, to help define the agenda.”
Cassidy & Associates, which consistently ranks in the top echelon of K Street firms, has seen revenue from formal lobbying decline each year since 2007, when the firm brought in $24.5 million in lobbying fees. By 2010, that figure had dipped nearly 18 percent to $20.2 million. The firm earned just $15.3 million in the first three quarters of 2011 — 18 percent less than this time last year — and is now aggressively seeking work it hadn’t pursued in fatter times.
About eight percent of Cassidy’s revenue now comes from non-lobby work, including consulting for foreign governments and businesses. The firm earns about $300,000 a year consulting for Korean companies (through the Korean Trade-Investment Promotion Agency) trying to sell its products to the U.S. government. Last week, Cassidy and sister company Weber Shandwick, a public relations firm, announced a 16-month contract worth $5.25 million euros ($7.1 million) to consult on the Russian government’s bid to host the 2020 World Expo.
“Looking at what happens to domestic lobbying revenues ... you might want to diversify your basket,” said Cassidy Vice Chairman and Chief Operating Officer Gregg Hartley. He said the firm would like non-lobbying work to account for as much as a quarter of revenues three to four years from now.
Even firms that have long incorporated non-lobbying work into their operations are looking for new opportunities. With federal dollars growing tighter and the shift in Washington from legislation to regulation, Van Scoyoc Associates is stepping up efforts to help universities and local governments, two of the firm’s core clientele, win grants.
This year Van Scoyoc — which in 2010 brought in a record $29.4 million in lobbying income — began partnering with the consulting firm ScienceWorks to provide additional consulting to universities competing for science and engineering grants. And it’s doing more work than ever with West Coast cities and water districts to comply with Clean Water Act regulations, and with cities along the coast and the U.S.-Canada and U.S.-Mexico borders to nab federal funding to fight drug smuggling and human trafficking through a program known as Operation Stonegarden.
“The amount of activity we have underway has increased in the non-lobbying context, but it’s all within a structure that’s been in place going back to 1994,” said president and chief executive H. Stewart “Stu” Van Scoyoc. “The intensity level has increased because there’s more activity on the agency side at the moment than federal legislative activity.”