By Jeff Grappone
June 16, 2021 at 5:00 am ET
The recent return of a full White House briefing room is the surest sign yet that Washington is getting back to normal.
With the explosive growth of virtual meetings during the pandemic, many American industries were fundamentally transformed during the COVID crisis. While some sectors will be permanently changed, that likely won’t include Washington Inc.
That’s because personal relationships built on mutual trust are the coin of the realm in our nation’s capital. These connections are cultivated through extensive in-person interaction over the course of many years.
Elected officials will certainly find ways to continue harnessing the power of Zoom to connect with constituents and reporters in the years to come. We’ve already seen the White House substantially beef up outreach to local media using this platform. And there’s no question that videoconferencing will remain as a new way for members of Congress to engage with groups and reporters back home.
But Washington is a place where real breakthroughs can occur when people are able to look each other in the eye. This personal connection is critical to supplementing Zoom meetings and digital campaigns that have shown their value throughout the pandemic.
As executives and advocacy groups plot their public affairs strategies, they’ll need to plan for the reality that Washington is getting closer to reopening.
On Capitol Hill, enough staffers are back in the office that they quickly ate a House-side pizza vendor out of product this spring. More recently, the House reopened the Capitol and office buildings to visitors on official business who have a member or staff escort, a similar policy to what’s already in place on the Senate side. The White House has announced that all staff members will be onsite as early as next month. And federal agencies are expected to submit plans by mid-July to bring workers back into the office. As government buildings open up, an increase in face-to-face meetings with principals and key staff won’t be far behind (albeit with COVID safety precautions remaining where appropriate).
The lure of meetings with legislative and executive branch officials also means large industry conferences in Washington will flourish again. These gatherings aren’t just a venue to meet with colleagues from across the country. They’re also a prime opportunity for executives to land speaking slots, providing a chance to stand out in their industry and shape its policy priorities. Make no mistake, seeing an executive speaker on stage is substantially more impactful than watching him or her in a box on a computer screen.
As COVID restrictions continue to loosen, in-person political fundraisers will once again be the norm. While fundraising has continued throughout the pandemic with help from Zoom, the types of conversations that are possible when everyone is in the same room are much tougher to have through videoconference. Fundraising breakfasts, lunches and dinners are coming back.
And any advocacy visit to Washington should also include time to connect with relevant industry reporters. As more and more reporters return to their usual in-person beats at the White House and the Capitol, journalists are getting closer to resuming regular in-person activities – including real-life meetings.
When it comes to engaging with the media, there is simply no substitute for face-to-face interaction. Reporters, columnists and influencers are eager to understand how Washington impacts real-world America. Executives and industry leaders who effectively tell their story to the right journalists can help shape the debate surrounding key issues to their advantage.
Zoom has helped the advocacy sector through the worst of the pandemic. But videoconferencing was always an unlikely permanent replacement for a city that is fueled by personal connections. As more Americans get vaccinated, Washington gets closer to being fully reopen for business. Although individual industries may have changed during the COVID crisis, impacting the debate in our nation’s capital will require the same in-person connections as before the pandemic.
Jeff Grappone is a senior vice president at ROKK Solutions, a bipartisan public affairs firm; he led messaging and communications for the Senate Republican Conference and has served as a spokesman for three U.S. senators.
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