It may be some time until we know for sure who will be sworn in as president on January 20, 2021, but behind the scenes both candidates’ teams are preparing for the transition in earnest. Even when the election outcome is clear, “The Swamp” is never murkier than in the heat of a presidential transition. That poses a challenge for public affairs professionals helping their organizations anticipate the impact of the next administration.
In 2016, Delve launched “The Administration Project,” a unique policy and personnel analysis service that gave our clients the expert insights they needed to thrive in a new and often surprising administration. We learned a lot from this venture, and we’re passing that knowledge to you. Here’s what you need to know to successfully navigate the transition and big policy debates ahead:
Read beyond the headlines.
In the days and weeks ahead, ballot counting and ongoing litigation will dominate the headlines, but both Trump and Biden are already deep into planning their transitions. Even once the counting ends, what you read in Twitter punditry and bite-sized newsletter updates may signal a common theme, but they don’t often tell the full or real story. So, beware of following the media’s focus, framing, and editorializing. Often, political reporters begin with a narrative, write a story around it, and then seek sources who, no matter how “in the know” they really are, confirm the reporter’s assumptions. Add in editors seeking headlines that get people clicking and sharing, even if those headlines overstate or misconstrue the supposed news in the story, and it can be hard to discern what news matters to you. With younger and more inexperienced journalists now dictating a lot of public discourse thanks to a range of trends in the media industry, much of modern media coverage lacks the institutional knowledge to provide an accurate depiction of perennial events like a transition. So, while others may focus on the sensational headlines, public affairs professionals will need to pay attention to what’s practical to them – even if it is buried deep in the story or actually in a primary source rather than the news.
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Filter out the noise.
The transition presents a classic Washington silly season, and any silly season is going to be, well, silly. Because we know this likelihood, it shouldn’t surprise us when the next few weeks and months are filled with tabloid-style political melodramas, complete with breathless quotes from anonymous sources, wild speculation from those who should know better, and supposed clashes that may only exist on Twitter. To better discern what’s real and what’s a distraction, stick close to reliable sources beyond the media while ensuring you understand the relevant institutions and their histories. What do presidential transition teams look for when determining key posts? With a near-certain GOP majority in the Senate, how will that shape what kinds of appointments the next president can make? What policy changes can an administration actually achieve within the parameters of their executive authority? By considering these questions, you will have an advantage in forecasting who might fill key administration spots or what policies really are on the docket. If you’re overwhelmed with trivial things that we’ll all forget in a few days’ time, you’ll miss the critical opportunity to get ahead. Commit to using your time for the things that matter.
But make sure you don’t miss a thing!
While it may seem counterintuitive to filtering out the noise, these two tips go hand-in-hand. With a better grip on what’s important, you’ll have more time and brainpower to dedicate to the things you really don’t want to miss. After all, fear of missing a critical development is a major concern for public affairs professionals. To overcome that fear, be sure to look beyond news clips and TV hits. See what different industry coalitions and activist groups are saying. Tap into the social media accounts of reliable, plugged-in sources of influence. Is there a pattern or trend? Are there places you should be looking often and others you can ignore? You should also develop a plan to organize your work and stick to what you know you’ll need to know. News that matters does not come fully formed until it is too late to act on it. Organizing the drips and drabs of news as they come out from disparate sources lets you connect the dots faster. This will help you avoid the race to catch up to breaking news that fades or reacting to things that really don’t matter. Following a wide variety of sources while filtering out the noise can be overwhelming, so you might consider leveraging a competitive intelligence partner to keep you ahead of the curve.
Understand motives and agendas.
Once you know what you should care about and how you’ll analyze information as you receive it, it’s important to factor in what motives and agendas could be at play throughout the transition. We know the media and their sources all have their own objectives, and they’re eager for a variety of audiences to be persuaded by their efforts. Common agenda-setting in press coverage may mean that a source’s quote is misrepresented or missing key context. There’s also a possibility that a quoted source, named or anonymous, isn’t actually an informed one, but instead, just someone eager to talk to a reporter. Don’t forget: anyone in Washington can feign expertise or connectivity to people in power. So, when you learn of a new name floated for a particular post, read beyond the headlines and ask yourself: is this a trial balloon for a legitimate candidate, or is this just a dutiful staffer anonymously stroking the ego of his or her boss? A trial balloon may indicate real interest on the side of either the administration or the prospective job candidate. Or, it might the administration testing the public or industries’ tolerance for another pick altogether. To avoid getting swept up in the craze, analyze whether or not a candidate is a good fit on paper, has the right personality for the administration, and if he or she could survive a Senate confirmation fight.
Map the influencers.
It’s not always the marquee names who shape public policy. Much of the media speculation and industry and activist groups’ attention may focus on Cabinet picks, but sub-cabinet and staff-level appointees are far more likely to make a meaningful impact on the rules and regulations that affect key industries, particularly those tapped for “beachhead” or “jump” teams parachuting into agencies to figure out what’s what and shepherd in the new administration’s agenda. To figure out who these people might be, watch the bundlers, buddies, and backers – political friends and allies who an administration trusts to give them direction in filling the thousands of posts that are open, as well as campaign staffers and volunteers who earned spots by getting the boss elected. Understand not just who these allies are, but who stands in the wings behind them. Knowing a president’s kitchen cabinet may be obvious, but all of those kitchen cabinet members have their own kitchen cabinets as well. Consider how Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) helped guide the Trump Administration’s environmental appointments, recommending fellow Oklahoman Scott Pruitt to run the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and then helping Pruitt staff the agency with his own trusted staffers – including Pruitt’s successor Andrew Wheeler.