Skip to content

The following post is courtesy of The Graduate School of Political Management's thought leadership initiative with the Public Affairs Council. 

For Adama Iwu, the breaking point came at a work-related event outside the State Capitol in Sacramento early last year.

At the gathering, Iwu, the Western states’ government affairs manager for Visa, was groped by a man, an industry peer, in the presence of professional colleagues — and the men in the room did nothing to stop the assault.

They said they figured she knew the man. Even if she had met him before, Iwu says, “that doesn’t mean when I spent three minutes pushing him off me that I didn’t want someone to step in and say, ‘She said, ‘no,’ stop.” What she found especially galling was that the group had just finished talking about the Harvey Weinstein case and what men can do to prevent sexual harassment.

Having had enough, Iwu organized more than 150 other women who signed an open letter taking a firm stand against sexual harassment by members of the California Legislature and demanding protection and accountability. They also created a website where other women can post their support.

“Each of us,” the letter read, “has endured, or witnessed or worked with women who experienced some form of dehumanizing behavior by men with power in our workplaces.” The signatories included political consultants, past and present lawmakers, Republican and Democratic officials and other lobbyists.

Since the Weinstein story broke, two California legislators have resigned their offices, and 18 others from around the country have resigned, announced their retirement or faced some form of reprimand. Six members of Congress have been forced out of office after having been accused of sexual harassment. And Iwu ended up on Time’s Dec. 18 “Person of the Year” cover.

“Charges of harassment came cascading through statehouses across the country, leading to investigations, resignations of powerful men and anguish over hostile workplaces for women that for years went unacknowledged,” The New York Times reported in December. “Amid this reckoning, one group of victims has stood apart: political lobbyists.”

Female lobbyists are “especially vulnerable in legislatures and in Congress because, unlike government employees, they often have no avenue to report complaints and receive due process. Lobbyists who have been harassed are essentially powerless in their workplaces, all-dependent on access to mostly male lawmakers for meetings and influence to advance legislation and earn their living.”

On Capitol Hill, staffers may be getting some protection if a bill that passed the House on Feb 6 can get through the Senate in some form. The Hill reports that the bill would “streamline the process available to Capitol Hill staffers to report harassment, provide additional resources for people filing complaints and establish transparency requirements for taxpayer-funded settlements to resolve cases.” It would also require the members of Congress accused of harassment, rather than tax payers, to pay for settling these cases.

But what’s not clear is if lobbyists and other non-government employees will be protected.

Protecting Themselves

Female lobbyists who have been harassed or who learned about it from colleagues are  figuring out how to protect themselves, though they cannot accomplish this alone. “We whisper and exchange information about who is ‘safe’ and who you have to watch out for,” Iwu says. “But we’re not content with that. Much more needs to be done.”

Jean Cantrell, head of government relations for Philips Lighting, says some of her peers rely on “work-arounds,” in which a female lobbyist always brings another woman when she meets with a legislator at a hotel restaurant, for example. But this “buddy system” means any such assignment requires two lobbyists when it should call for only one. If the lobbyists are billing by the hour, the meeting costs twice what it ordinarily would.

Also, such tactics put the responsibility on the victim, which isn’t quite fair. “It isn’t the female lobbyist’s behavior that is the problem,” says Elizabeth Bartz, president and CEO of State and Federal Communications, Inc., of Akron, Ohio. “It’s the male legislator’s.” Virtually all of the harassers are men preying on women. “We hear war stories from our members,” says Beth Loudy, executive director of the State Government Affairs Council in Alexandria, Va., “This is about power in the workplace and extends far beyond statehouses. That just happens to be our members’ workplace.”

Relentless Pressure

“The lobbyist’s bread-and-butter is her relationship to powerful men,” says Christopher Metzler, the former senior associate dean for human resources at Georgetown University. Metzler, who has investigated hundreds of sexual harassment cases, says elected officials “have outsized egos to begin with, so the only thing that will bring about real change is relentless pressure. That can involve leaking information to the press, as risky as that can be. Realistically speaking, there are few legal protections in a situation like this — no way to lodge a formal complaint.”

Even so, more and more often, women in this business are no longer willing to change their behavior when they believe they are doing nothing wrong. “I wouldn’t dare tell a young woman entering into this profession how to be safe — how to dress or talk or any of that,” Iwu says. “But what I would tell her is that you no longer have to cope with harassment the way women have done forever, which is internalize it and eat yourself alive with shame, asking what you wore or did that ‘invited’ this treatment. Those days are gone.”

Unfortunately, the culture and the law that governs sexual harassment have yet to catch up. “As others have pointed out, the difficulty for lobbyists is that the harasser is not an employee of the same company, where company policies and procedures can be followed and you can complain to the company’s human resources department,” says Evan Gibbs, an employment lawyer with Troutman Sanders in Atlanta. “It is comparable to the Weinstein situation in that the women he harassed were not employees of his company but other people in the film industry who looked to him to help them with their careers. They needed the relationship to succeed.”

A possible legal response — but one very few lobbyists would be willing to make — is to sue their own employer.  “Not many people know this, but Title VII, which is the federal law covering sexual harassment and gender discrimination, prohibits employers from allowing their employees to be harassed by a third party,” Gibbs says. “Ultimately, [the employer] is responsible whether the person committing the harassment is an employee or not. If you work for a restaurant, the owner of the restaurant is required by law to protect their wait staff from harassment by a customer. The same holds true for lobbyists and elected officials.”

Risking Relationships

Plus, some lobbyists have experienced harassment from clients, which can also make the situation challenging. In such cases, they might complain to the client’s HR department, but they do so at great risk to their relationships with the client’s company. And there’s no guarantee they will derive any satisfaction from such a complaint.

In one respect, going to an HR department to complain can actually make matters worse, Metzler says. “Sexual harassment is too often seen as something set apart from the general culture of a company. Too often, HR departments still see their job as protecting the company by making the problem go away. What they don’t realize is that by failing to protect the victim, the HR department can open up the company to massive liability.”

Another problem, Metzler says, is that even when a company decides to turn a complaint over to its outside counsel to investigate, “the outside counsel almost always sees everything from the company’s point of view, which creates a conflict in itself. The way to investigate a complaint properly is to turn it over to a law firm that isn’t already working for the company.”

Going Public

It is a rare lobbyist, of course, who wants to jeopardize her career — which depends on maintaining relationships with lawmakers — by going public with her accusations, much less sue her own employer. She can go to the press, “which eats this stuff up,” says Bartz. In their letter, Iwu and her colleagues managed to generate great media coverage for their position without naming names of legislators.

As a result of their letter, the California State Legislature has begun hearings on the issue, and the Subcommittee on Sexual Harassment Prevention and Response, described by Iwu as “dormant for years” is meeting regularly again. Meanwhile, a growing number of states have taken action too, passing or stiffening sexual-harassment rules, investigating claims and punishing lawmakers who prey on lobbyists. In Oregon and Washington, the action was a response to letters like Iwu’s signed by some 300 women.

In Illinois, where more than 160 women signed a letter of their own, lawmakers are now required to attend a sexual harassment seminar. The legislative state inspector has also been empowered to investigate 27 ethics complaints against lawmakers.

That’s certainly progress. But the reaction in Illinois provides proof that much educational work remains to be done. That’s because the Illinois legislature has also taken a position that critics say is misguided — because it is designed primarily to prevent harassment by lobbyists, not harassment of them, Senate Bill 402 establishes a $5,000 fine for violations and requires lobbyists to take a sexual harassment training course within 30 days of their registration or renewal; they also have to have a written sexual harassment policy of their own, or their company’s.

“I don’t get it,” Bartz says. “Lobbyists have never been the problem.”

About the Public Affairs Council
Both nonpartisan and nonpolitical, the Public Affairs Council is the leading association for public affairs professionals worldwide. The Council’s mission is to advance the field of public affairs and to provide its 700 member companies and associations with the executive education and expertise they need to succeed while maintaining the highest ethical standards. Learn more about the Council at pac.org.

The Graduate School of Political Management is always looking for the latest and greatest tools, techniques, and strategies for success in the fields of politics, communications, and advocacy. One key source of information is our Board of Advisors, senior leaders in their fields that have taken the time to provide strategic guidance and insights to our school and its students.

We asked our Blue Co-Chair Robert Hoopes, President of VOX Global and General Manager of FleishmanHillard's DC office, and Red Co-Chair Leigh Ann Pusey, Senior Vice President of Corporate Affairs and Communications at Eli Lilly and Company.

They told us that the opportunity to work to improve political discourse, as well as engaging with the next generation of political leaders has been an inspiration to them.

The Graduate School of Political Management's social media monitoring research initiative, the PEORIA Project, released three new pieces on the impact twitter is having on politics and communications.

The first, published in the Washington Post, detailed rise and continued strength of the #MeToo movement. Researchers found that while #MeToo had been an activist hashtag on social media for some time, it exploded after the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment news. The reach and volume, in effect how many people saw the hashtag and how often they saw it, grew at least in part because well-known public figures were sharing their stories of harassment for the first time. Read more at the Washington Post.

Secondly, the PEORIA Project released its first quarterly report. Among the many findings, lead researcher Dr. Michael Cohen found that Congressional incumbents in close races should try their best to stay out of Twitter's glare. Two of the top mentions on political twitter in this category, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-CA) and Rep. Darrel Issa (R-CA), have already announced that they will not seek reelection to their seats in November. Read the full report on our website.

Lastly, the project also published its most recent ECHO report. In it, Cohen found that in the battle over who deserves blame over the government shutdown that started last week, Twitter found President Donald Trump more at fault than Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. Read the full report at US News.

As we get closer to the election, we expect to find more insights into the ways in which social media shapes and amplifies political messages, and the PEORIA Project will bring them to you. Be sure to subscribe to our PEORIA Project newsletter here.

Grassroots Professional Network

The Graduate School of Political Management (GSPM) didn’t become the first and foremost school of applied politics, communications, and advocacy on its own. We have an extensive network of partners that team up with us for panel discussions, networking receptions, and other events. One of GSPM’s key partners over the last three years has been the Grassroots Professional Network (GPN).

Founded in 2015, the GPN started as a community for public affairs professionals to provide professional development and networking opportunities. From those humble beginnings, the organization quickly garnered hundreds of members. The group now offers a portfolio of online resources, industry assets, and networking events, all at no cost.

GSPM and GPN started their partnership three years ago in the fall of 2015 with a series of lunch and learn events featuring advocacy industry leaders, including alumni of the GSPM. From there, the relationship has grown exponentially. In 2017, the groups worked together to create The Agora Government Relations and Public Affairs Marketplace, which featured more than three dozen vendors and drew more than 800 attendees. Using that success as a guide, GSPM and GPN plan on expanding their relationship yet again in 2018, starting with the State of Advocacy Forum to be held on campus at GW on January 31.

“GPN would not be nearly as successful of a non-profit organization without the support, ideas, and innovation of the GSPM program and staff who have taken an interest in seeing GPN grow and succeed throughout the course of our partnership. I look forward to working with GSPM for many years to come,” said GPN Founder and Chairman Joshua Habursky.

In many instances, GSPM alumni have been at the forefront of these events, serving as facilitators and panelists. Both groups look forward to a continuing relationship that raises the profile of each organization, and continues to professionalize the field of grassroots advocacy.

The 2016 presidential election took nearly everyone by surprise, with political neophyte Donald Trump winning over Hillary Clinton, one of the most well-known political figures ever. A panel of GSPM adjunct faculty, who are also leading campaign strategists with several presidential campaigns on their resumes, weighed in on what happened and what comes next in the worlds of campaigning and political consulting.

The biggest change in the 2016 cycle was the explosion of content that campaigns needed to produce to stay competitive. “Politics has become very personal and the ways to consume content have too, and the more ways there are to consume content the more content there needs to be,” said Evan Tracey, Political Management Adjunct Professor and Senior Vice President at the political advertising firm National Media Research, Planning, and Placement.

Peter Fenn, a long-time media consultant, says the old model of big media buys are coming to an end. “I call paid media now ‘pay more get less’ media. We’re in a situation where fewer and fewer people are watching television commercials and it’s more about targeting and figuring out where undecided voters are and appealing to them personally,” he said. He noted that data analytics and consumer segmentation are going to drive campaign strategy to an ever-larger extent.

For another expert, the need to understand national dynamics was key. “You needed to be a master of the modern media environment to be a successful candidate,” said Adjunct Professor Suzanne Zurn, founder of the Three Lines Group. She lamented that part of that understanding was that in an increasingly polarized society, factual accuracy was less important than in the past.

That understanding of the media environment allowed Trump, who frequently eschewed conservative policy principles and campaign norms, to thrive. Mark Mellman, a Democratic strategist, noted that Trump was able to build a coalition by bringing together three strands of conservative thought: people’s aversion to government, change, and difference. A general political malaise helped the outsider candidate as well. “People didn’t think he would win, so he was a good protest vote,” said Mellman. Katie Packer, who ran a Republican SuperPAC opposed to the Trump campaign, noted that none of the other candidates were willing or able to stop the New Yorker’s momentum. “In campaigns, opponents don't just die people kill them, metaphorically of course,” she said.

In addition to offering a post-mortem of the past, the panelists also gave some advice to students just starting their political careers. “When you start in politics you should be knocking on doors" said Fenn. “And when you get older you should keep doing it. I love knocking on doors." He also cautioned against the caricature of the wealthy campaign consultant. “Don't go into political consulting to get rich. You can make money sure, but you gotta love it in order to succeed.”

GSPM students in our Strategic Public Relations Principles & Practices were treated to a visit and guest lecture from the Mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico Carmen Yulín Cruz earlier this week. She gave an update on relief efforts in the wake of Hurricane Maria and shared her lessons on the importance of honesty in political communications.

From The GW Hatchet:

“You have to become not a politician, but a public servant,” she said. “We may not agree, but you need to know what I stand for. And if someone doesn’t like what I have to say, then I tell them to not vote for me in 2020.”

As the discussion shifted from her campaign and political career to the devastation of Hurricane Maria, Yulín Cruz spoke to the students about her firsthand experiences leading the city in the immediate aftermath of the storm.

“I’ve seen elderly people left in their homes to die. I’ve seen mothers cry because they cannot find their children medicine,” Yulìn Cruz said. “Now the world has to face our poverty and inequality and it cannot be covered up by piña coladas and palm trees.”

Read more at The GW Hatchet.

A host of changes to politics over the last two decades, from redistricting and gerrymandering to modifications of campaign finance laws, have decreased incentives to govern effectively said  one current member and three former members of Congress at an event Wednesday at the George Washington University.

Those changes and their consequences have given rise to a series of never-ending purity tests, says former Rep. Al Wynn (D-Md.). “I came into politics with the understanding that you compromise to get things done….,” Mr. Wynn said. “As a result of redistricting, you end up with inter-party fights, and I view it as a fight between ideological members and pragmatic centrist candidates.”

Mr. Wynn added that SuperPACs and other outside groups made the changes worse with outsized spending and advertising campaigns that seek to nationalize every race, rather than focusing on local issues.

Mr. Wynn was among four panelists at the event co-hosted by GW’s Graduate School of Political Management and the U.S. Association of Former Member of Congress. Also on the panel were former Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), B.S. ‘63, former Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.)  and Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.).

Read more at GW Today.

The ECHO is the newest component of our PEORIA Project social media monitoring and analysis research. With The ECHO, we're tracking the weekly ebb and flow of trending topics and individuals in politics.

This week our lead PEORIA Project researcher Prof. Michael Cohen found that Twitter was focused on the United States Capitol writing

The center of political discussion on Twitter moved to Capitol Hill this week as members passed a deal struck by the president and Democratic congressional leaders to extend the debt limit for three months and fund hurricane relief efforts for Hurricane Harvey (492,148 tweets) and ahead of Hurricane Irma (4,641,783 tweets). In the wake of the hurricanes, tweets about climate change were up 75 percent (721,677 tweets).

The shift in activity down Pennsylvania Avenue is reflected in the volume of tweets: President Donald Trump was down 47 percent while the tweets about the U.S. Senate (163 percent) and the House (229 percent) were both up by triple-digit percentages.

Check out the other insights at U.S News & World Report.

While President Donald Trump's inner circle of family members in key positions has many White House watchers nervous, GSPM Prof Matt Dallek notes that nepotism is nothing new at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. He joined WBUR's Freak Out And Carry On hosts Ron Suskind and Heather Cox Richardson to discuss several key instances of presidential familial advisors.

Listen to the entire interview here.

 

Now that the Senate vote to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, has been postponed until after the July 4th Congressional recess, our Prof. Matt Dallek takes a look at why repealing legislation is so difficult.

He finds that this is the case in part because of a paradox "Americans distrust the federal government’s commitment to the public’s welfare, yet Americans in the main are also opposed to fundamentally reforming the government’s costliest social programs."

Read his full post on Yahoo News.

GW is committed to digital accessibility. If you experience a barrier that affects your ability to access content on this page, let us know via the Accessibility Feedback Form.