The lobbying coalition that wasn't
This is a story about a press conference that was, that wasn't, that was; and how precious credibility was lost.
Three years ago, my employer, a national insurance trade association that is considered politically potent, formed a lobbying and public relations coalition with three other insurance trade groups to promote at the federal level our chief legislative issue: preventing bank entry into the insurance business. The coalition, like others of its kind, was intended to ensure that the industry delivered a consistent, cohesive message to Congress and the media, in the most cost-efficient way.
In April 1989, some of these national trade groups wanted to assist their Illinois state affiliates in setting up a similar coalition at the state level, in reaction to a proposed state bill permitting banks' entry into the insurance industry. The problem was that the bill had already moved swiftly through the Illinois legislature and a vote was less than a week away. Despite this, our coalition partners thought that any press would be good press. We did not agree. We thought a hasty, unplanned response might do more harm than good. However, we decided to cooperate.
The road to disaster
Almost no press had been created for the insurance industry's views during the months leading up to the vote, so we were starting from ground zero. A news conference was scheduled for the Monday before the Wednesday vote.
A Sunday meeting was scheduled with the state associations' executive directors, lobbyists, public relations persons and spokespersons for the press conference. At least one representative from each national association was there. In all, an unwieldy crowd of nearly 20 was assembled. There were as many different theories on how we should proceed as there were people. In addition, some individuals were there under protest.
To make matters worse, upon our arrival in Springfield on Sunday, we discovered that the state affiliate associations were not clear on what their goals and objectives were on the banking issue beyond defeating this particular bill. They didn't even agree on the reasons that they opposed the bill.
The lobbyists were the most informed on the bill and the issue, but in association politics they are often not selected to be spokespersons. With that in mind, the national association staff members worked into the morning to prepare formal remarks for the spokespersons to deliver at the press conference, now only hours away.
At 6 a.m. there was an ominous rap on my hotel room door. The national lobbyist we had commandeered to assist us informed me that the funeral of former Illinois Governor Richard Ogilvy was taking place in Chicago on the same day. Somehow, we had overlooked this in our planning session. With the state legislators out of town, it was his opinion that they would perceive our move as underhanded. He felt the press conference should be called off. We agreed.
We marched down to the statehouse to deliver cancellation notices to reporters. Then we waited apprehensively in the room we had reserved for the press conference, in case some had been missed.
Just when we thought it was safe to retreat back to Washington, D.C., the ultimate faux pas was committed. Some of the spokespersons from the state associations decided to "stop by" the statehouse. Obviously, reporters wanted to ask questions. The spokespersons began "winging it."
Initially, we were paralyzed by our surprise. After a reasonable amount of time, we indicated that we would have time for only a few more questions and the impromptu press conference ended. …