Alex Slater is Managing Director at Clyde Group, a Communications and Public Affairs Agency in Washington, D.C. and member of the Interel Washington Group. Slater has worked at multiple conventions, both for the Democratic party and for outside interests. www.clydegroup.com
Peter Peyser is founder and principal of Peyser Associates, a member of the Interel Washington Group with offices in Washington, D.C. and New York. Peter is a veteran of many Democratic party conventions and will be in Philadelphia this July for the 2016 Democratic convention. www.peyser.com
Darrell Henry is a partner in Gavel Resources, a member of the Interel Washington Group, and co-founder of Conventions2016. Henry has been involved in each U.S. national political convention since 1996. www.gavelresources.com
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American national political conventions are among the biggest spectacles in politics. Other than Election Day and Inauguration Day, few events in the U.S. political psyche are more important, and – unlike those other events – conventions offer public affairs specialists more opportunity to expand their influence with key political stakeholders, gather intelligence on important issues, meet decision-makers and ultimately advance an agenda.
On paper, the conventions are focused on allowing each party to develop its national “platform” (list of political and policy positions), prioritize its issues, hone its stances for the upcoming election and officially nominate its presidential ticket. However, these become almost secondary activities next to a once in every four years super-gathering of influencers.
Organized by the respective national committees, and taking place in Cleveland from July 18-21 for Republicans, and in Philadelphia from July 25-28 for Democrats, the weeks of conventions are full of panels, workshops, happy hours, meet and greets, discussions and topical events held over breakfast, lunch, dinner and every hour in between.
I’ve been to every Democratic convention since I arrived in Washington D.C. fifteen years ago – a few Republican conventions too – and I know from experience that whether your client wants to meet with thought leaders, decision-makers or journalists, in order to advance their agenda, raise their stature or impact policy, strategic planning can make it happen.
A range of organizations, from the Hollywood political lobby “Creative Coalition” to major media properties like Politico, hold events that invite corporate sponsors to participate. They can start at as much as $200,000 for a place at an “elites dinner” featuring a corporate logo. And while those events shouldn’t be discounted, with a good guide and a clear strategy, a company or organization seeking to maximize their exposure and advance their issues in Washington can seek out much greater return on investment.
So, what should you expect?
First, picture the scene. A week full of networking opportunities on steroids, as every single politician from either side of the aisle, along with the leaders from every industry and the entire national media converge in one city. You’ll find yourself watching Bill Clinton’s motorcade go by, just as you (sometimes literally) bump into Jon Stewart.
But the real value for those in public affairs lies in the many substantive policy and issue-oriented attendees. It’s an ideal setting to reach out to prospective clients, connect with new members of the media, make your case for issues or priorities in the next Administration or just make as many introductions as you can to see what sticks.
When it comes to meeting other professionals it’s also worth remembering to get outside the Convention Center. While it is the main attraction, the entire city will be packed with interesting events and important people.
This confluence of influence also makes conventions a perfect place to take the pulse of the national conversation. Scouting out convention events is a savvy way to get a sense of which issues industry leaders are talking about, how they are talking about them and what you can do to plug into their conversation. This is best accomplished by those who do their homework ahead of time and review schedules provided by political groups, corporate sponsors and media outlets, like Politico or The Atlantic, to find niche events that are relevant to their professional interests and clients.
If you’re willing to do some serious preparation beforehand, you can even shape the conversation by getting your clients, or even yourself, placed on agenda-setting panels and roundtables. Making this happen requires planning and working your contacts ahead of time. Of course, you can also hold your own event in town during the convention if you want full control and assurance that your issues will be featured. The key here is, once again, to get started early. If you’re planning your own event the first challenge is finding a venue—if you don’t beat the rush, you may find yourself on the corner competing for space with street performers.
One important point, however: going to a convention is fun – it might yield tangible progress on an issue or help you make multiple new connections. But make no mistake, if you are attempting to educate relevant audiences (and particularly a prospective incoming Administration) about an issue, or advocate for a cause, it is not enough to go to a convention.
You need a holistic public affairs strategy that targets each sequential “touch point” of the Presidential campaigns, from pre-primary and conventions through the transition team and inauguration. Foundations and major organizations will spend millions doing exactly that this year. And while nobody needs a budget that big to make themselves heard, it’s an indication of just how sophisticated advocacy around Presidential campaigns has become. For the smart, nimble and strategic, that can be a major asset.
The only danger is being left behind.
Every four years, over two separate four-day periods, business leaders from around the U.S. and the world, gather in two locations in the U.S. for intense interaction with one another and with the leaders of American government at all levels, the news media, entertainers and representatives of virtually every interest group one can imagine.
These gatherings are the national conventions of America’s two major political parties. The primary purposes of these conventions are to nominate the party’s candidates for President and Vice President and convey whatever messages the party wishes to convey as the final stage of the presidential election campaign begins. However, in the past twenty years, the conventions have spawned so many events taking place around their host city that the convention itself has become for some only a minor part of the reason for attending.
There are a variety of gatherings – policy seminars, luncheons and dinners, cocktail parties, “after parties” featuring major recording artists, and more. These events are sponsored by the host committee of the convention and by major corporations, trade groups, non-profits, labor unions and others.
Being present for the nomination of a major party’s national ticket is definitely a thrill for anyone who is interested in politics and government. When you add to the equation the potential to spend four days and nights mingling with the leaders of corporate America, Members of the U.S. Congress, Governors, Mayors and a variety of show business celebrities, the calculus for many business leaders tilts in favor of attending.
In 2016, the Republican National Convention will take place in Cleveland, OH from July 18-21. The Democratic National Convention is being held in Philadelphia, PA from July 25-28. Obtaining hotel rooms, credentials for the convention itself, and invitations to events requires knowledge of how the system works and – yes – a financial investment.
The U.S. Democratic Party will convene for its convention in Philadelphia this summer and make history: it will either nominate the first woman to run for President as the standard bearer of a major national party, or it will nominate an avowed socialist who will take the party farther to the left than it has been for eighty years – or perhaps, ever.
Either way, the convention will present an opportunity to gain an understanding of the state of American politics and participate in the largest gathering of American political, business, labor and non-profit leadership anywhere. During convention week, it will be possible for participants in the events in Philadelphia to advance their own message to one of the most influential gatherings one can find in the United States.
Being effective in doing so requires the investment of money, but also a sophisticated approach to managing the time of those attending and developing a message that will penetrate with the right people amid all the background noise.
The Republican and Democratic presidential nominating conventions are the Super Bowl of American politics, and there is no venue like them to reinvigorate existing relationships, to forge new ones, and to bring attention to your issues and ideas.
These conventions are one-of-a-kind opportunities for corporations, trade associations, and non-profit group, and even foreign representatives and businesses, to introduce themselves and their issues to decision-makers from all levels of government from across the nation, all in one place at the same time.
The Republican Convention will be Cleveland, Ohio, from July 18 to 21, 2016. The Democrats have picked Philadelphia, PA, the very next week, from July 25 to 28. Each convention will attract 45-50,000 visitors – including approximately 6,000 Delegates alternates, 5,000 volunteers, and 15,000 media representatives.
Each city will raise $70 million in private funding to produce the convention. And each convention will generate up to $200 million in economic activity. They are huge.
They’re also unique and dramatic. Each of the two major parties gathers to nominate their standard bearer; one of whom will become President. Each state sends representatives, known as delegates, selected at local caucuses, or via conventions, or in primary elections. It’s an interesting and complicated process, and one result is that top business and political leaders from every state come together.
Those attending include party leaders, local elected officials, Members of the House and Senate, business and civic leaders – decision-makers at every level from every state. These conventions are the only gathering of the most influential local, state, and federal community, business, and political leaders in the nation, and it occurs once every four years.
Some may say it’s unseemly for businesses and private interests to attend such a ‘political’ event, but the fact is America is the home of a spirited democracy, our representatives are expected to engage with the people whose decisions they affect, and the ethics and compliance rules are both strict and transparent.
National conventions are where one can effectively present ideas and build important relationships. As a lobbyist, political organizer, and corporate representative, I wouldn’t miss one – and in fact have attended every one since 1996. They are wonderful opportunities that only happen once every four years; but they can pay political dividends for years to come.
As an organization, getting involved in the conventions requires strategic and advance planning. Activities to consider might include interaction with key policy makers and other VIPs, the production or sponsorship of hospitality or policy oriented events, or involvement in educational forums. Whatever type of involvement an organization may consider, working out all of the logistics well ahead of the event is absolutely critical.
Regardless of how big or small, how sophisticated or how skilled your organization is, our political capabilities, convention experience, and local knowledge could help you make the conventions a successful investment for your overall public affairs program.