The Washington Redskins’ recent decision to hire lobbyists shouldn’t come as a shock.
The Redskins made the move a week after 50 senators wrote to the NFL commissioner urging the league to press the team to change its name.
But is this really a moment when lobbyists can make a difference? After all, most of the debate has been raging outside the halls of Congress. And while it’s a big public relations mess, legislative action against the team seems pretty unlikely at this point.
Well, not surprisingly, influence industry pros say there still might be something K Street can do.
“They may calm down the senators. They may resolve one potential hot spot,” is how one seasoned lobbyist put it.
But there’s more. “Lobbyists can be like Navy SEALs you’re sending in to find out what kind of bombs are out there,” said Larry Kamer, a public affairs and crisis management expert whose clients have included Toyota and Nike. “They can come back and say, ‘We’re in a dangerous situation, and here’s what we’ve got to do to get out of it.’ ”
Others in the business agree: Sometimes, it’s not opening doors or detailed policy advice that clients need, but someone who can realistically assess the circumstances and tell them what needs to be done to get to a better place — even if it’s not what the clients want to hear.
That’s not how McGuireWoods Consulting describes what it’s doing for the Redskins. In a disclosure report filed this month, the firm said it would discuss “team origins, history and traditions, Washington Redskins Charitable Foundation and youth sports,” as well as the activities of the Original Americans Foundation, set up by the team to help Native Americans.
The four lobbyists on the account include Frank Donatelli, who worked in the Reagan White House and also represents the NBA, and L.F. Payne Jr., a former member of Congress from Virginia (and former member of the powerful Ways and Means Committee) who was the builder of the Wintergreen Resort in western Virginia. Ron Platt, who worked for top Democrats in the House and Senate and on several presidential campaigns, and Russ Sullivan, who worked for former senator Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and the Senate Finance Committee, which Baucus chaired, also are on the account.
McGuireWoods — which, like the team, has strong Virginia ties — declined to discuss its work for the Redskins, and we won’t know how much the firm is making until July, when the next quarterly disclosure reports are due.
Phil Hochberg, a veteran sports lawyer and lobbyist who has represented the NFL, NBA, NHL and PGA, called Donatelli “a top-notch guy.” Beyond that, though, Hochberg, a former Redskins stadium announcer, didn’t want to talk about the team and the trouble its name is causing.
Hochberg isn’t currently representing the NFL. But at last count, the league had two dozen other lobbyists working on its behalf at several outside firms and a small Washington office. The NFL reported spending $260,000 on that effort in the first quarter of 2014.
Issues such as player safety, drug testing, antitrust concerns and broadcast policies are the lobbyists’ usual focus.
Now that the NFL has heard from 50 Democratic senators, including Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), and Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), a leading critic of the team, recently mentioned the league’s tax-exempt status, it’s a fair bet that some of the NFL’s lobbyists are paying attention to the name issue, too.
The fight over the team name is, for the most part, a public relations battle. While sentiment may have shifted, a Washington Post poll a year ago found that 61 percent of Washingtonians liked the team’s name, and two-thirds said the team should not change it. A national poll conducted by the Associated Press in January found that 83 percent of respondents said the team should not change its name.
But many in the influence industry agree that it makes sense for the Redskins to bring in their own lobbyists, even if there isn’t a live fight about legislation. The Redskins’ lobbying teams is likely to do a fair bit of talking, trying to tell the team’s side of the story and put a different face on the issue.
As Kamer, the crisis management pro, said, “When 50 senators sign a letter about anything, it’s hard to imagine a situation where you don’t want to bring in lobbyists and lawyers who can help you navigate all of the difficulties that represents.”
But the lobbyists’ most important role, he and others said, might be offering an up-close read of the situation.
“A connected lawyer, a knowledgable lobbyist, a smart consultant can make the rounds, find out what’s going on, and go back to the principal and say, ‘The way you think is the way out is not the way out. The way out is this.’”
What happens next is up to the team.