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An effective advocate: here's how the Consumer Electronics Association tackles--and often wins--public policy challenges.

REMEMBER THE SONY BETAMAX, THE FIRST VIDEO-cassette recorder? Back in 1981, a ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court in San Francisco made it illegal for consumers to purchase and use such VCRs. That's when the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), Arlington, Virginia, first ventured into the public policy arena on behalf of our 1,000 members in manufacturing and retailing.

The debate about VCRs eventually moved to Congress and the courts and was decided in 1984 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the entertainment industry's position. In the ensuing 20 years, CEA has developed both a structure and strategies for tackling other prominent issues on behalf of our members and consumers.

A team effort

Of CEA's 120 employees, 5 work exclusively in the area of government and legislative relations. Two of them concentrate on congressional and federal issues, while the others individually specialize in technology policies, environmental issues, and state-level legislation. Augmenting this team as needed are other staff, including engineers on the technical and standards team and communication specialists.

Many of the issues CEA tackles, however, are not initially identified by staff. We rely on a grassroots network of members to serve as the association's eyes and ears in their own states and to alert us to proposed legislation or regulations. Several dozen members serve on CEA's Government Affairs Council, which meets regularly to set policy priorities, share information, and serve as a sounding board for possible strategies.

When an issue bubbles up from the states or appears on the national scene, the council and staff decide whether and how to address it by applying a simple test: How widely will the issue affect the industry overall and our members in particular? In the equation we weigh the breadth of an issue's impact, versus the benefit (or detriment) to our members, versus our resources.

Secrets of our success

In more than two decades of tackling public policy issues, here's what we have learned:

1. Think creatively. Whether educating Congress on technology-related issues or mobilizing our members behind policy initiatives, an ongoing goal is to differentiate our association and ensure that our messages get heard.

As an example, one CEA employee wondered why computers couldn't be included in the sales tax holidays that some states grant during the back-to-school buying season. After all, he reasoned, computers have become as essential for students as new shoes, clothes, pencils, and books.

In the past two years, at least five states have agreed and added computers to the list of items that are exempt from sales tax during the time families are stocking up on school supplies. Several other states are seriously considering the same action. Although CEA, like most associations, typically plays defense on issues, going on the offensive in this case has benefited consumers as well as retailers and manufacturers. The initiative also shows that CEA, like our members, must be quick and entrepreneurial in its thinking.

2. Leverage your assets. One of CEA's biggest advantages are consumer electronics products themselves. Out of their offices, policymakers are also consumers. They tend to have a high awareness of our members' products--and often hands-on experience in using them.

Still, policymakers can't possibly know all the nuances of the technologies they are regulating. That's why we invite a group of them to another of CEA's assets: the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES), held each January in Las Vegas. The biggest trade show of any type in the Americas, CES in 2003 attracted 116,000 attendees to visit with 2,200 exhibitors covering 1.25 million square feet of exhibit space.

This year, more than 100 representatives from the Federal Communications Commission, the Federal Trade Commission, and several congressional committees participated in this "Leaders of Technology" program. During their two days at the CES, policymakers can attend a variety of events ranging from guided tours of the show floor to keynote sessions featuring industry leaders, from debates on issues facing Congress to "green" panel discussions on product recycling and energy efficiency.

This combination of back-to-back activities imparts a lot of information and connects participants with key industry leaders in a short time. Since launching the "Leaders of Technology" program two years ago, we have discovered that when the policymakers return to Washington, D.C., they show a new understanding of our industry's complexity and dynamics.

3. Apply campaign strategies. We typically approach a public policy battle much like a political campaign. To us, that means the following:

* Define the issue. Working with our members, CEA formulates a one-page document for every pending issue, This boils every issue down to its essence--which is important for communicating with busy policymakers who have many other issues on their minds.

* Develop consistent, key messages. To ensure that the entire association speaks with one voice on an issue, CEA gives its communications department the authority to create and manage all messages, working in collaboration with the government and legal affairs division. The communications department controls the number of people authorized to speak on an issue, ensures that those spokespeople are appropriately trained to deal with the media, and keeps all messages in a centralized location--such as CEA's intranet--so that all employees can use the same wording when speaking or writing about an issue.

* Promote local involvement. We take to heart the famous observation of long-time Speaker of the House Tip O'Neil: "All politics is local." Members of Congress, for instance, put as much weight on editorials in their local papers as those in The New York Times. On both Capitol Hill and in state legislatures, our members are compelling messengers because they are the businesspeople and entrepreneurs who can articulate what an issue means to them personally.

Each year at CES, we have a booth where members can sign up to be part of CEA's grassroots network, Citizen's Action Network. We then match members from certain states or districts to key legislators and schedule face-to-face meetings between the two groups when necessary. To keep the network up to date on all the issues, CEA issues a biweekly Government Alert via e-mail.

Each item reported in the enewsletter comes with hyperlinks to relevant testimony, press releases, or proposed legislative or regulatory language. We also include an e-mail link to the appropriate staff person so that readers can immediately request--or provide--more information on an issue.

Another service we offer at the state level is the CEA State Legislative Tracking Report. The report, which members access through the members-only portion of CEA's Web site, provides a "radar screen of up-and-coming issues related to consumer electronics.

* Win with the facts. When members walk into a policymaker's office, they bring more than personal observations. Thanks to eBrain Market Research--a nonprofit subsidiary of CEA--they also have credible and statistically valid facts to support their comments.

As an example, in 2002 the U.S. Congress seriously considered a "One-Watt" mandate; this would have required that all consumer electronics products consume only one watt of energy. Our research revealed that this restriction would either limit the functionality of a large variety of electronics products--including hospital equipment and security devices--or significantly drive up their prices as manufacturers made changes to comply with the mandate. Further, we found that consumer electronics use only 1-3 percent of all energy consumed in the United States.

The research results enabled us to develop several key messages: The one-watt mandate would inhibit innovation, limit consumer choice, create more government bureaucracy, and have little effect on energy conservation. We then began a two-pronged lobbying and outreach campaign to publicize the facts to the media and members of Congress. We tapped our grassroots network to help us place articles and advertisements in key newspapers; members also wrote letters to their local newspapers and to their congressional representatives.

When members met with their respective lawmakers in person, they had targeted research to present--such as what consumers in a specific congressional district thought about the proposed mandate or how much money would be lost by retailers or manufacturers within the district if the proposal passed. All of these forces came together to help us convince policymakers that the one-watt mandate was ill-advised.

CEA learned something from this initiative as well. To provide members a vehicle for participating in the political process, CEA recently formed a political action committee (PAC) to support federal candidates who recognize the importance of the consumer electronics industry and advance related issues in Congress.

4. Cultivate a wide group of allies. When defining an issue, we always brainstorm who else might be affected and therefore be a potential partner in a coalition. Because of the range of issues with which CEA is involved, it is in the association's best interest to join forces, whenever possible, with other organizations and stakeholders.

For the one-watt mandate, we partnered with the Accessibility Equipment Manufacturers Association, the Cookware Manufacturers Association, and the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers-all of whose members could be adversely affected by limiting energy requirements. On the sales tax holiday legislation, we work with groups concerned about the digital divide and access to computers, including those representing senior citizens, rural residents, and veterans. On issues related to fair use and home recording rights, we work with schools and libraries, software and technology organizations, and other consumer and manufacturing groups.

5. Define issues by their societal benefits.

We focus on and promote the fact that our advocacy efforts bring about social good.

With the economic uncertainty and security concerns surrounding our country, consumers are spending more time at home. There, thanks to CEA's initiatives on behalf of consumers at all income levels, they have more control over their educational and entertainment viewing, using products that are more affordable. Including computers in sales tax holidays, for example, can increase access to computers and thus benefit disadvantaged households by helping close the digital divide.

6. Treat your opponents with dignity and respect. We make an effort to incorporate both sides of a debate by inviting opponents and supporters alike to participate in panel discussions at our conferences.

When CEA recently sponsored a conference on high-definition television, for example, we invited representatives from major associations that do not see the transition to digital television in the same way our members do. (They all came.)

We also maintain ongoing dialogue with groups that we may disagree with, realizing that we all play an important role in the policy debate. Indeed, your opponents today may well be your allies on an issue tomorrow.

Just look at CEA's first public policy battle 20 years ago. Despite its initial opposition to the Sony Betamax, Hollywood now reaps tremendous profits not only from the popularity of the VCR but from related video sales and rentals. Once an opponent, the entertainment industry is today a frequent proponent of consumer electronics products.

RELATED ARTICLE: How to Tackle and Win Public Policy Challenges

* Think creatively.

* Leverage your assets.

* Apply campaign strategies.

* Cultivate a wide group of allies.

* Define issues by their societal benefits.

* Treat your opponents with dignity and respect.

Gary Shapiro is president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association, Arlington, Virginia. E-mail:
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Author:Shapiro, Gary
Publication:Association Management
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2003
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