Q&A with H&K’s Bartlett: The Public is ‘Willing to Listen to the Private Sector Again’

In part two of our Q&A with Hill & Knowlton/Public Strategies head Dan Bartlett, we focus on politics and public affairs.

Bartlett, who was known for being very close with former President George W. Bush from his days in Texas politics, was an aide to the President for more than 10 years until he announced his resignation in June 2007. Later that year, he joined Public Strategies and now sits in charge.

After the jump, we talk about the impact his political history is having on the present, and what he thinks the future holds for the 2012 election.

You have a long history in politics. How did it prepare you for your role in PR? And for taking a leadership role in PR?

Seven years in the White House, there’s probably not a crisis or challenge that can live up to some of the things I’ve faced there. You get… a pretty unique perspective on the challenges that our clients now face.

Politics and being involved in campaigns is ultimately about understanding and shaping public opinion. In politics you do it to get 51 percent of the vote or to get enough votes to pass legislation and there are a lot of different factors that influence that public opinion. Obviously, the tactics or the techniques used are constantly evolving, whether it’s social media or others. And I’ve found that typically those in the political sphere are on the cutting edge of using those tactics because politicians are very interested in getting reelected.

So I think there is a lot of crossover appeal that can help corporations and others manage their own public opinion. I have some unique insight that might be a broader perspective than they’re getting from the corporate environment that they’re in today. I’ve found the transition to be, from a work perspective, very useful. From a personal perspective, it’s nice not to be in the White House right now. The new job is much better in some respects.

How do you walk the line between shaping public opinion and some of the unsavory elements out there [used to accomplish that]?

The trends in social media and elsewhere come down to one thing and that’s authenticity. That’s why you see politicians like Gov. Christie in New Jersey who calls it like he sees it, counterintuitive to a lot of people’s expectations; Gov. Cuomo here in New York putting forth a very blunt message.

Millions of people are gravitating towards to not only socialize, but, more importantly, almost to validate key decisions they’re making in their lives.  Traditional institutions are seeing a degradation in their credibility. You’re seeing this shift where people are going to find people who have aligned interests and at its core is authenticity.

The challenge for companies – when they’re asked to be more aggressive in how they define themselves – is how do you do that in an authentic way. Politicians are always trying to figure that out, probably in a more strategic way than many companies because they stand for re-election so often. If you attempt to achieve somebody’s objectives using artificial [means], people can see through that and they have the access and the technology to allow that to be exposed. The public is yearning for that candid message.

In the eighteen months during the financial crisis and the election of a new President, there was a surge of support for government intervention in key sectors of our economy. As the economy improves and decisions are being made in Washington, that pendulum is swinging back to where the public is now willing to listen to the private sector again. I’d almost call it a “jump ball”: they’re kind of critical or skeptical of both. There’s an opportunity for the private sector and for non-government entities to have a conversation with the public again.

What are some of the key changes in the Republican party since your time in the White House? Things a public affairs professional should keep in mind?

Traditionally the Republicans during the primary process are much more hierarchical in how they choose their nominee. George H.W. Bush was kind of the next one to Reagan, Bob Dole was kind of in line after that. We kind of default to the conventional wisdom candidate whereas the Democratic primary process is kind of a jump ball every time. That’s changing in the Republican party and we’re seeing that there’s no clear front runner. The transformation in technology democratizes the process; it’s not just the person who raises the most money that gets their message out. This is affording people who would’ve never had a chance to become President to at least be in the game.

The experience the Republicans went through of running Congress in the early 90s, losing power, and now coming back is that you can be reading your press releases too much and keeping a healthy dose of skepticism about who you are and what you’re accomplishing is very important. One of the challenges for those in our industry is we’re in the judgment and counseling business. Our job is not to just please our clients. Our job is to tell our clients what they need to know in order to make good decisions.

As new power centers within the party try to exert themselves, whether it’s the Tea Party or otherwise, how does the Republican party handle this expanding tent of voters?That’s not much different from the multiple constituencies that most companies face. Rationalizing those differences as the Repubican leadership is attempting to do will be fascinating in the coming weeks and months.

How successful do think they are so far, particularly in terms of the Tea Party? It seems as though coverage implies the Tea Party is having its way.

Those who either ascribe to being a Tea Partier or at least some of the principles behind it – fiscal restraint and budget discipline – are in the majority right now with the public. Independents are swinging that way. You don’t have to look at what those in the Tea Party are saying. You can look to what their opponents are saying, such as President Obama during the State of the Union address. They are dominating the national debate.

If they can turn their political strength that they demonstrated in the last election cycle, into governing strength is yet to be seen. They’ve had votes in the House, they’ve had symbolic votes in the Senate. The flip side is the ’08 election, those who helped generate the tidal wave of support on behalf of President Obama, from an electoral standpoint didn’t really translate; a lot of the young voters did not then stay  interested during the actual governing during the first two years of his presidency which turned out to be a challenge.

Republicans are facing that same issue. My hunch is that we won’t know the final outcome of that until after the presidential election.

Where do you think we’re headed in 2012?

President Obama will be very focused on who his opponent is, but they’re more focused on the economic recovery. Everybody wants to have a country that’s creating new jobs. But politically, his ability to win the election in large part rests on the overall health of the economy. I think they’re cautiously optimistic that the trajectory they’re seeing right now, 18 months from now,  should feel better than it does today. There are variables that we’re seeing play out in the Middle East right now and prospects of a $5 gallon of gas that could derail what we’re seeing.

Secondly, Republicans have to get their house in order as to who their nominee is going to be. The administration should be taking advantage of this vacuum. There’s a lot of voices on the Republican side.

There’s so much talk always about the legacies of presidents. George Bush has a book now and people are starting to talk about him again. But there are all these issues that still linger. What do you think will ultimately be his legacy? Where is it heading?

A lot of things were set in motion during his presidency, several of those things were controversial. It does take time for the dust to settle. With time you do gain perspective. You also gain perspective when the new guy comes in and it turns out “Well that looks harder than we thought it was going to be.” Seeing the new president grapple with some of the similar issues that you saw President Bush grapple with, you get a new appreciation for the previous President.

President Bush is not somebody who is overly concerned with on a daily basis with trying to shape his legacy. I think he understands he had his opportunity to air his views in the new book which appears to have some traction. But that’s the beauty of being an ex-President: time is on his side. And we truly won’t know for another 20 years. There’s still a lot of intense focus on Ronald Reagan’s presidency and how long ago was that?