A new energy policy bill was an early priority of President Obama, but it quickly fell by the wayside after the then-Democratic controlled House of Representatives passed a bill with cap-and-trade provisions that coal industry states despise. With free-market Republicans now in control of the House and the White House having put energy on the back burner, political pundits give the odds of passing energy legislation a very low probability. As a result, companies with alternative energy as their focus are sitting on the sidelines in Washington. An energy lobbyist friend this week lamented that he was struggling to convince his clients that this is actually a time of great opportunity here in D.C.
That’s a big mistake, in my opinion, for several reasons. First and foremost, Washington is driven by events more than political agendas. When lawmakers return to their districts during the Congressional recesses, they are going to hear loud and clear about the high prices at the pump that are inching towards $5 dollar-a-gallon gas, and the impact that is having on middle-class Americans, especially in the mid-west and other regions where distances are large and public transportation non-existent. Forget that the U.S. government and policy makers have little to do with oil supplies and gas prices in the short term. Taxpayers and voters are going to want action, and members of Congress may easily decide that an energy bill might be a good thing for their reelection prospects going into 2012. In that sense, it may be the high price of gas that actually forces Congress and the Administration to take a new look at a comprehensive energy bill.
Second, a time of no-action in Washington is exactly the right time to begin laying the groundwork for when legislation is back on track. This is the best time to lay the foundation for a communications campaign to supplement retail lobbying by companies and trade associations with a good story to tell on energy alternatives. Once the panic sets in and legislation starts moving quickly, it is often too late to get a seat at the table. Building the key relationships beforehand is much easier and more effective than hoping to cut through the clutter in the midst of the political battles.
There are a number of strategies that can be easily implemented without a large commitment of resources that can begin to position an organization as one worthy of government-backed incentives, so that when the issue does heat up again, they won’t be starting from scratch. These can include:
- A dedicated web portal that serves as a repository of information on the issue and a link to resources that members of Congress, their staff, and other policy makers can readily find and use;
- Video content of executives and industry experts describing and explaining the challenges and solutions they can offer;
- Traditional media outreach including op-eds discussing energy alternatives;
- Social media to identity and build an audience with policy makers and engage in a conversation about the solutions; and
- Thought leadership events that bring specialists together in front of opinion leaders and policy makers.
The most effective communications campaign is not one that looks like marketing, but rather one that truly does bring thought leadership and new ideas to the debate. This is the best time to take those steps, build those relationships, and engage members of Congress, their staff, and the Washington energy ecosystem before the train leaves the station.