Lady Gaga and Stephen Colbert entranced the media for a few days this past week with their respective lobbying efforts. Gaga’s efforts were intriguing because she took her advocacy not to Washington but to Maine, home to Senators Collins and Snowe, who were holdouts on the threatened GOP filibuster of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Colbert played “expert” with his immigration reform testimony.
Although it would seem such efforts could resonate in Washington, they didn’t even scratch the surface. After Senator Collins voted to filibuster the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, she remarked, “I think it’s great when any American gets involved with the political process. Although I look far more to Admiral Mullen for military advice than I do Lady Gaga.” Ouch. Even worse was Majority Leader Steny Hoyer’s reaction to Colbert’s testimony, which he called both an “embarrassment” and “inappropriate.”
Celebrity advocacy isn’t a new thing, but I think Gaga and Colbert’s failed advocacy begs the question of whether celebrity lobbying can be effective. Does Washington care what celebrities think? More importantly, do elected officials care?
The experiences of three celebrities who came to Washington earlier this month to lobby — Eva Longoria Parker, Denzel Washington and country star Big Kenny — go a long way toward answering that question.
Let’s start with the most ineffective of the three: Big Kenny. Big Kenny came to Capitol Hill to eliminate mountaintop-removal coal mining. When pressed by a reporter to identify who he was meeting with, Big Kenny was uncertain but said he hoped to meet with some elected officials from his home state of Virginia. Earlier in the day, he had performed at a counter-rally to combat coal industry lobbyists, who were also on the Hill rallying and advocating for a conflicting cause.
Big Kenny’s experience is a classic example of shot-gun celebrity lobbying — when celebrities assume that their mere appearance will move legislation in the right direction. Big Kenny was smart in showing up to advocate for his cause, but the lack of a targeted lobbying strategy resulted in an ineffective lobbying day. Instead of using his celebrity status to publicize his cause and assist the members of Congress who support him, he created the impression of a celebrity on a one-man mission without a serious strategy.
Sadly, this is far from the case, as he had the environmental movement backing his efforts. The coal industry rally he was opposing did a far better job of drawing elected officials (Senators Webb, Rockefeller, and McConnell) and providing them with compelling reasons to increase coal production and combat EPA regulations.
Eva Longoria Parker’s experience epitomizes the stagnant lobbying example. Although her intentions were amazing — to end the use of migrant child workers — her lobbying strategy was stagnant. More focused than Big Kenny, Longoria Parker used her celebrity status wisely and drew attention to a specific piece of legislation she was pushing and even brought along her documentary on the subject as well as the congresswoman who sponsored the legislation. After her lobbying she told a reporter, “It seems like a brainless act to pass. I don’t understand the resistance to it.”
Longoria Parker’s lobbying was stagnant, because although she narrowed her legislative desires into a specific focus, she didn’t understand how Washington really works. If she had, she would have been able to move her lobbying to the next level and have a more productive day.
There were two main issues with the bill Longoria Parker was lobbying on behalf of. The first issue was support. The child migrant worker legislation didn’t have a single Republican co-sponsor. Without bipartisan support, bills are unlikely to make it through Congress.
The second issue with the bill was its lack of movement. Even though over 100 Democrats support this bill and Democrats control Congress, the bill hasn’t made it out of its subcommittee.
This means that instead of lobbying for the bill’s passage, Longoria Parker should have been lobbying for a compromise bill that will get Republicans to commit support or at least put some pressure on the Democratic majority to get it out of committee.
Surprisingly, of the three celebrities, Denzel Washington proved to be the most effective lobbyist. It is surprising because Denzel didn’t step foot on the Hill and yet seems to have achieved his desired advocacy goal: calling attention to the high school dropout rate. Instead of meeting with members of Congress, he worked with the Boys and Girls Club of America (BGCA) to stage a conference at the National Press Club with education experts and met President Obama to deliver a letter soliciting presidential support.
Although Denzel’s advocacy didn’t end up on the Hill, it worked beautifully. At the end of a congressional session, it is foolish to waste a high-profile celebrity and the accompanying press on a Hail Mary legislative attempt. Denzel and the BGCA were smart to embrace the press while starting with a simple platform that will allow them to build the initiative and any desired advocacy goals for the next Congress.
When celebrities come to Washington, DC, they are usually greeted with great interest by the press and policy makers, but that interest quickly wanes as few policy makers take celebrity advocacy seriously. It isn’t that Washington isn’t star-struck; it’s just that here we are already used to a celebrity — the celebrity power broker. Those who are powerful in Washington are celebrated — your average lawmaker, lobbyist or top staffer. Hollywood celebrities, however, lack any real power.
I recall having a variety of celebrity run-ins when I was a staffer on Capitol Hill, but I do not remember why those celebrities were there. Once I ran into an older woman accompanying a powerful committee chairman. I was anxious to talk to her, assuming she was a senior staffer of some stature. When she couldn’t carry on a conversation relevant to the committee, I ignored her only to later find out she was famed singer Carole King. (Famous among baby boomers but a generation or two removed from most Hill staffers.)
Celebrity can be a useful addition to an advocacy strategy, as it does bring media attention, but it can’t be an end in itself. Lady Gaga’s speech in Maine included set design and a long comparison between a “meat dress” she had worn at an awards ceremony and the important policy issue she was attempting to champion. Colbert’s testimony abandoned any pretext of expertise as he stayed in mock-character for almost the entirety of his given time. This is celebrity advocating celebrity.
Such an effort isn’t really advocacy. It is crucial for celebrities who want to be advocates to learn good lobbying practices and then put them to use. Big Kenny and Eva Longoria Parker attempted advocacy but their efforts didn’t include a strong strategy that would complement their existing celebrity. Only Denzel Washington effectively managed to both attract attention to the issue he was lobbying for and adopt a clear lobbying approach — and it paid off. I hope that Big Kenny and Eva Longoria Parker come back to Washington with more specifics and greater advocacy skills, as I would love to become their biggest Washington fan. As for Gaga and Colbert, I had never really paid attention to their acts before, but maybe I will buy an MP3 or DVD.
Maury Litwack is a lobbyist, former Hill staffer and author of the recently published The Capitol Plan – A Comprehensive Washington Advocacy Strategy.