The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

K Street says social media are growing faster than traditional lobbying as way to influence Washington

The U.S. Capitol dome at dawn. (Photo by Jonathan P. Larsen / Diadem Images)

Many K Street leaders view social media and digital advocacy, not traditional lobbying, as the fastest-growing segments of the influence industry, according to a recent survey of Washington lobbyists, lawyers, association executives and think tank leaders.

When asked about the next five years, the greatest percentage of respondents, 38 percent, said they expect organizations to increase social media to influence policymakers, according to an October survey of 202 Washington “insiders” by the opinion research firm Prime Group. The next largest percentage, 21 percent, expect organizations to increase their digital capabilities. Only 17 percent said they expect organizations to increase lobbying.

The survey was commissioned by the lobby and communications firm Rasky Baerlein, co-founded by longtime Joe Biden strategist Larry Rasky.

“There is an increased demand for integrated public affairs programs that incorporate traditional government relations along with public relations, grass roots and digital components,” Rasky said. “These findings are an important barometer as Washington readies itself for postelection and 2017.”

The numbers confirm a trend that many lobbyists have known for years: traditional shoe-leather lobbying, while still dominant, doesn’t have as much room to grow as social media and digital advocacy, which are increasingly powerful tools to influence public opinion. Myriad lobby shops have, especially over the last four years, been scrambling to launch and expand their public affairs, public relations and digital communications divisions as congressional gridlock put a damper on the traditional lobbying business.

However, companies, trade groups and other organizations are still devoting the largest share of their public policy budget, 45 percent, to congressional and executive branch lobbying, according to the survey. That slice, though, is shrinking compared to last year’s survey results of 48 percent.

Another interesting tidbit from the survey offers a window into what “insiders” think about their fellow “insiders.” When asked to name two organizations they think are the most effective at influencing public policy, respondents picked the National Rifle Association and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The survey also captures K Street sentiment on the two biggest preoccupations in national politics: who will win the presidential election and which party will control the Senate.

Ninety-two percent of respondents believe Hillary Clinton will win the White House — 100 percent of Democrats, 77 percent of Republicans and 90 percent of independents. They are more split, however, on which party will control the Senate — 62 percent believe Democrats will retake the chamber, while 38 percent believe Republicans will retain the majority.

The respondents come from both political parties, though they are more heavily skewed toward Democrats. Forty-nine percent identify as Democrats, 30 percent as independents and 21 percent as Republicans.