Clayton Christensen is often credited — and criticized — for inserting the word “disrupted” into our standard business lexicon. In “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” he describes how businesses can lose out to unconventional competitors who are able to change long-standing assumptions about what is valued and how to win.
Our recent election might be viewed as a disruption of accepted models for political campaigns.
I am in a business that is being disrupted — and I am not talking about the news media. I am talking about the very Washington business of trade associations and, in particular, advocating for members and influencing events on Capitol Hill. The business is changing rapidly, and the people in that industry have to adapt quickly or get used to losing dramatically. This is particularly true in an environment in which outside groups have proven much more adept at using the new tools of influence.
Traditional approaches to advocacy developed when processes in Congress and the administration were semifunctional and there was a genuine focus on governing. Congress may have engaged in sausage-making, but at least there was sausage at the end. Under these circumstances, advocacy was mostly practiced as an “inside-out” discipline. Good advocates understood government processes, and the politicians and policymakers who had influence over them. Practitioners walked halls in Washington, met with staff, made arguments, drafted letters and built coalitions of like-minded interest groups. The best traditional advocacy was about diligence, a focus on detail and building trusted personal connections. And, contrary to popular views of lobbying, it rarely took place in glamorous restaurants. But this was also a form of advocacy that didn’t work very well when, as with recent history, nothing much happened.
After this last election, some believe that shoe-leather lobbying will make a comeback. After all, the same party controls both houses and the administration, so now would be a good time to get back to the “in the weeds” work of legislating. Maybe. But I think there are longer term trends at play that are still fundamentally changing the business — and making the hallways much less important than the airwaves.
Social media is immediate, passionate and ubiquitous while party cohesion and discipline are at historic lows. The institutional mechanisms for forcing compromise are weak at a time when anyone’s individual Twitter brand can be strong.
In my view, this means that the tools of influence are inexorably moving toward being “outside-in.” Influence will, to a greater and greater degree, come not from quiet talks in worn conference rooms or the grinding work of committees, but from the press of popular anger and passion generated by Snaps and Facebook shares. Want Congress to care about something? Forget about getting a hearing scheduled. The first thing you should do is create a powerful meme that drives 100,000 tweets, propels broad news coverage and, in the end, forces hundreds of congressional offices to respond.
Look at the recent debates about drug pricing. There have been arguments and studies about the pricing of medications. But all of that has paled in comparison to the impact of the recent controversy about Mylan’s pricing of the Epi-Pen, as it has played out in social media, on news sites and on cable TV. Without regard to what happened in the election, those who support more controls on drug prices are winning the meme war in a big way, and shoe-leather advocacy, in and of itself, isn’t going to change that.
This means that anyone in my business needs to adapt. Traditional lobbying still has a big role to play. But anyone who wants to shape events in Washington — whether you represent businesses or unions or children’s rights — has to have a great grasp of how today’s media works and use mass communication as a first and central tool for driving change. You have to do what social media-savvy groups outside Washington do, and start with The People and move back toward their representatives in Congress.
It will require many, many people in the Washington influence industry who are invested in old views of “how Washington works” to change their game. But in an era when so many industries across the United States are being disrupted by social and technological change, we probably need to acknowledge that it just may be our turn.
Chavern is president and chief executive officer of the News Media Alliance.