Our Clients Don’t Confuse Activity for Progress, Neither Do We

Of The Herald Group’s six pillars of culture, “our clients don’t confuse activity for progress, neither do we” may be the most used and repeated mantra within the firm and embedded within client initiatives. Below is a brief Q&A with Taylor Gross, THG Co-Founder and Partner, on its significance.

Give us the background on ‘our clients don’t confuse activity for progress, neither do we.’ Why is it such a critical priority cultural pillar for the firms?

When we first launched the firm sixteen years ago, a common approach we wanted to upend  was the stale process of firms and organizations either overvaluing shiny nickel projects based simply on slickness and quantity or undervaluing more impactful strategies, tactics, and technologies that established clear political pressure points on defined audiences and targets needed to actually move the needle.

A common theme was pointing to a large amount of activity that occurred as a win, such as a stack of inside the beltway and industry news clips, the number of videos produced and posted online, DMV focused digital ads and social media campaigns, etc.  All of them important, but only if leveraged as part of an integrated strategy that focused on engaging policymakers in the right way. Creating noise is essential, but we believe that establishing clear economic and political consequences and opportunities among targeted audiences always serves as a better metric in helping to achieve a client’s public policy objectives.

John Wooden, former head coach for the UCLA Bruins, coined the quote, “Never mistake activity for achievement.” THG always strives to apply this to the public affairs world as well. When we started the firm there were public relations firms focused on strategic communications and government affairs firms focused on lobbying, but very few public affairs firms that brought together all the pieces of the advocacy puzzle to engage both inside and outside the beltway. Back then we were seeing these large PR firms proposing big, flashy, and expensive tactics not based on any defined strategy other than creating noise. We felt we could do better, and we certainly have.

There is also a hidden message within this key pillar— it is critical to always make sure you set key goals with the client from the outset. As U.S. General George Marshall said, “If you get the objectives right, a lieutenant can write the strategy.” Campaign objectives must be clear and specific in order to create winning strategies and tactics.

Could you give an example of mistaking activity for progress in the public affairs world?

There was a campaign many years ago in which a client emphatically believed placing an op-ed placed in a particular national publication was the key to influencing a handful of targeted legislators who were on the fence. Despite us providing additional strategies and tactics, they wanted all of our attention focused on ensuring the piece was placed.  The op-ed was ultimately published in the publication, but it was quickly realized that it did nothing to move the needle. We were able to convince the client to shift the strategy to target these lawmakers back in their home states and districts via an integrated earned media and grasstops campaign. The more localized approach worked and several of the lawmakers sided with our position and Congressional leaders soon backed away from consideration of the issue.

Again, we don’t dismiss the importance of such activities.  We understand that putting visible points on the board is needed to elevate issues both politically and among internal constituencies within organizations.  Our approach and counsel at THG are simply to ensure client initiatives are integrated across multiple fronts wherever possible versus being preoccupied on singular activities. And we work with clients to come up with workable solutions to that end.

Why is this pillar so important in helping to shape THG’s culture?

We want to work with clients who we can provide value to, clients who understand the importance of setting clear objectives and being very strategic in our approach and tactics. For this reason, we are a little picky about who we work with. We oftentimes tell clients if they are just looking for a stack of news clips for sake of activity, we aren’t the firm for them. In the same vein, we won’t suggest tactics to just spin our wheels and spend clients’ money, unless we think it will move the needle and accomplish their objective. It must be part of a thoughtful decision process.

Our team gets excited when we can execute against clear objectives, craft clever campaigns, and deliver big wins. It’s why we love what we do and why we believe many of our clients are still with us 15 years after opening our doors.