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Episode 22: Exploring Grasstops Campaigning in the Cleantech Industry with Expert Jonathan Drobis

16 min. read

#Cleantechers working in community engagement for projects – If you’d like to see how big-budget, mature corporations run their local public affairs, please check out our conversation with someone who’s spent over a decade running grasstops campaigns for Fortune 500 companies. We think there are portable lessons to learn, despite the significant differences in budget levels. 

Jonathan Drobis is a long-time friend and a legit political campaign veteran. Over the last 12 years, he’s run grasstops campaigns for Fortune 500 companies from The Dewey Square Group (DSG), a heavy-duty firm with its own Wikipedia definition. 

Grasstops, sometimes derisively called “astroturf,” is a form of corporate communications that helps large mature companies secure their policy goals from public officials – often at the state or local level. It parallels the type of grassroots community engagement that clean energy companies pursue to win the social license needed to secure project approval from the local county commission. 

Before his current role, Jonathan spent a decade working in politics at the state, local and federal level. He came to CLEANPOWER with us in May to observe how clean energy companies are doing in their equivalent of grasstops campaigning – community acceptance. We recently caught up with Jonathan to tap his observations.  

Our thanks to Jonathan Drobis for making his political expertise available to cleantechers engaging with rural communities about the benefits of clean energy.

 

Overview

Introduction - Grasstops Campaigning in Corporate Communications


Mike Casey:
Hey, cleantechers! I’m here with a special interview with a friend of mine. We often talk about community acceptance as a growing barrier to the clean energy transition and the problem we’ve identified in talking to our friends who do development for large clean energy companies is that community acceptance has now become more and more a part of the development process. And the slippage is often getting the politics right in the drive to get a permit and social license to build something. A lot of our developer teams are now finding themselves engaged in what is essentially a local political campaign but they don’t have any political experience, so we’ve taken the liberty of bringing in a long-time friend of mine who is a legit political campaign veteran, spent 10 years working in politics at the state, local and federal level. He has spent the last 12 years working at the powerhouse firm called Dewey Square Group. There we have a Wikipedia definition that these guys are the national experts on what’s called grasstops campaigning. And that essentially is a form of corporate communications that helps large mature companies secure the treatment they want, and secure their policy goals from public officials. So it’s the communication part of lobbying. And John Drobis has been doing this for a long time at Dewey Square and I thought, ‘Hey, let’s have him on for the conversation because Jonathan was good enough to come with us to Clean Power last May and he took a look around it, what are companies doing in terms of community acceptance and running some version of grasstops that he runs with much bigger budgets. And I wanted him to come on and talk to us about what he does for a living, what mature companies do tactically when they have much bigger budgets, and how that contrasts with what we’re doing and what steps our folks can take to come up to the higher level of effectiveness knowing that they don’t have this Fortune 500 budgets. So, Jonathan, thanks for coming on with us.

Jonathan Drobis:

Happy to be here, Mike. Thanks, for having me.



Mike Casey:

So, my friend, I think what's important is first to ground our audience in what you do for a living at Dewey Square. You work at one of the preeminent firms that does grasstops campaigning for Fortune 500 companies and I think a lot of folks in cleantech aren't familiar with this as kind of a niche especially, that is quite an industry in itself, kind of explain grasstops campaigning and perhaps some of the major features of successful grasstops programs for Fortune 500 companies.


Jonathan Drobis:

Sure. Happy to, and again, thanks for having me, Mike. I think the term grasstops gets thrown around a lot depending on who you're talking to, it could be public affairs, or it could be advocacy. But specifically, I think what's relevant to your audience is building, working backward, what we do and what I've done is working backward from the decision-makers who are going to influence your business or influence your sector, whether it is through legislation or legislation project permitting, regulation, and building a program to make sure that you are building allies and building support to get the results that you want from those decision-makers and doing that for the long term. And creating two-way long-term relationships with all kinds of people out there. Because at the end of the day, I mean, what we do and what I've done taken from working in politics and then from my current perch, where I've been the last 12 years, at the end of the day, what we're doing is educating some audience about a public policy issue and persuading them to take some sort of action. That's at its core what we're doing. Whether you're talking about a statewide referendum or a project permitting issue in a town of 4,000 people, there are a lot of different pieces that we layer onto. But that's what it is at the end of the day.



Characteristics of Successful Fortune 500 Grass Tops Campaigns



Mike Casey:

Jonathan, if you were gonna list out the major features of an effective Fortune 500 grasstops campaign, how would you list those out, kind of an order of priority?

Jonathan Drobis:

Sure. And I would say, and I think of this as a campaign broadly for a company. The first, having a systematic approach to your public affairs priorities. Because if you don't have a clear view of what matters to you from a public affairs perspective, and that means integrating the business with the politics, you can't allocate time and resources. So having a really clear and analytical approach to deciding at the local, state, and federal level, what you care about, and what in priority order. That's first. 
The second thing is making sure you're using research and analytics and using it early and often. And what I mean by that is at the end of the day, this is about convincing some portion of the public or an elected official to take an action. They are going to be influenced by public opinion and making sure that on the front end of building a program, building a campaign, you have a clear understanding of where the public is, whether it's nationally on your issue or at a very local level. If you're trying to get a permit done in a small town, you need to understand where the public's coming from and have a mechanism, one, to understand that on the front end, and two, to track that. And along with that make sure that you've got a sense of who your targets are from the perspective of who you wanna talk to. So who is persuadable, who is totally on your side, and then who is so far on the other side that it's not worth talking to. So that's a systematic approach to public affairs, to your priorities, research, and analytics. Once you have a view of the playing field, you need to have a clear understanding of the way that the decision makers that you care about make the decisions. This is often called relationship mapping as a term that gets thrown around. But the way I think about it is having a clear view of who your decision makers are and who the people and issues that are going to impact their decision. Because any building a campaign, whether you're talking about grasstops, which we're talking about here, communications, or any other piece of it, you need to be able to work backward from how those folks are going to make the decisions. It is really important and distinguishes a focused campaign from one that can kind of go in all different directions. 

The fourth I would say is working off that mapping. Good companies know how to advocate for themselves in their own voice. The really effective ones, that we work with, also can bring allies to the table, to advocate alongside them, so that means both the natural allies and then folks who might not traditionally be engaged in a public policy battle, but who do have aligned interests or aligned priorities and figuring out how to engage with them and do it for the long term. And I'm happy to get more into that as we go through. 

The last one I would say is building the mature sectors and having figured out how to build an echo chamber. So when they have a message, whether it's a broad level or a narrow one, they're able to get that out to the audiences that they care about and do it beyond their voice in a way that resonates and amplifies with the decision-makers that they're targeting, again, whether you're talking about federal or local.



The Importance of In-depth Research in Political Decision Making



Mike Casey:

What I'm really struck by is how systematic and almost templatized the approach is. So when one of your clients goes into a campaign environment, they know they need to get a said number of people on a particular decision-making body to say yes or no, whatever they're looking for, and they're developing a fair amount of research on each decision-maker. They're categorizing them into champions, implacable foes, or in the middle. My question is, how deep does that research typically go? 

Jonathan Drobis:

To be done well, it needs to go fairly deep. And when I think about research, that means public opinion, but it also means opposition, which we can talk about later. And then this stakeholder, mapping piece. And the more that you know about, and when I say the more, particularly from a political perspective, how a city council person, or a county supervisor, or a parish council member, or a member of Congress, how they make decisions, who they care about, who their donors are, what are their priority issues, what would have been their stands in the past, who are the people that they listen to? I mean, in the end, a lot of, if you can figure out who, what do they care about, and whose phone call are they gonna return, that will tell you a whole lot about the best way to approach a communications campaign to persuade them to be with you. And that can go to, should this be something that is loud and broad, we should be trying to get in the paper and on TV and make it a big surround sound effort, or should this just be a very quiet effort where it might be two phone calls and we need to keep it quiet. And that's it. Having an understanding of how those decision-makers make those calls when they're weighing tough political calls will certainly allow you to do that in a much more effective way.

Mike Casey:

What I hear you’re saying is that your clientele has you build political profiles of a said policymaker that is research into what drives them to make decisions. And what drives them is not ideological mooring as much as it is their political calculations and how they got into office and how they want to stay in office. Is that accurate?

Jonathan Drobis:

Yeah, I think that's totally accurate. And I will say there are candidates, members of any elected body, where those ideological moorings are important, but it does go to taking an individual. These are individuals, these are people. My mom and my dad make decisions in different ways, and I understand how to approach my mom and how to approach my dad. It's the same principle - know who you're going to talk to and how they make decisions.



Leveraging Supply Chains and Employee Networks in Campaigns



Mike Casey:

I’ve also heard in what you're saying that some of your clientele are leveraging their supply chains and their employee bases in order to create an echo chamber around the decision-maker. Is that accurate? And if so, can you say a little bit more about that practice?

Jonathan Drobis:

Yeah, it is. And it's really important from the perspective of starting with your base, to use one that's often used in electoral politics, but it carries over too. Start with your most natural allies, the folks that are going to directly benefit from the legislation or the project being permitted, or whatever it is. So your employees who have a stake in the company and the success of the company, your suppliers, who also have a direct stake in the company doing well in it making money, in it expanding. And that's where you wanna start and make sure that group is informed about your priorities, understands what you're trying to get done and how they can help. Arguably that last part, you need to do the other part so they can understand how to help, but you wanna make them members of your team in a way that makes sense. You need to acknowledge that they've got the suppliers, they have a lot of other things that they need to do, and so do your employees. But there are ways to make sure that they can take a little bit of their time to help you get your public policy priorities done. But it takes a lot of legwork on the front end.



Clean Energy Sector at an Inflection Point: Trends and Challenges



Mike Casey:

So I've heard five or six main tenets of a grasstops program that you at Dewey Square are going to do for a major client like McDonald's or Sony or big budgeted, mature companies. You went to Clean Power. We hung out together. You went to see community acceptance panels and seminars.
What did you notice about our sector and how we are pursuing policy goals, particularly at the local level?

Jonathan Drobis:

Well, I think there was definitely, and I think it might have been a theme of the conference, a clear understanding that the industry and the sector are at an inflection point. And based on the huge opportunity that's in front of the clean energy sector, not this is something that all of your listeners know, as it relates to community acceptance and making the case at the local level. What I heard a lot is that we know that this is going to get harder. Between the economics and the IRA passing and the infrastructure bill as well as all the incentives plus what's happening in the economy. It's taking off in a way that you're building closer to people. The easiest project to build has already been built and the the hill is going to get steeper to climb. And I think I did hear that recognition and an acceptance and understanding of that. And I heard a lot about - related to what we've been talking about here - using the right messengers and the right messages to make the case to decision-makers. I think a clear understanding of the way that the industry approaches this challenge and how cleantech companies and those trying to get projects permitted by generation transmission, storage, whatever it is, how they handle this challenge, will have huge ramifications both for what the economy and the energy economy of the country look like, but also the bottom lines of those companies. But I think I also felt like a question mark about, ‘Well, how do we get from A to B?’



How Clean Energy Companies Can Enhance Public Affairs



Mike Casey:

Right. You know what? One of the things that I've been struck by, I've read the history of the oil and gas lobby. I've read a history of the chemical lobby. What I noticed in both seemed to have played out in what I saw when I was a professional environmental activist, which was that around decade seven or eight in the life cycle of an industry, that's when the public affairs practices become mature. They become baked into the business plans of major companies in that sector. And I think the fair view of clean energy is that they're not even in the 20th year of their modern incarnation. So they're disruptors in decade two, disrupting industries that are in decade ten. And yet, they need to figure out ways to try to close the gap despite there being a pronounced budget gap. And the first thing when we raise Fortune 500 political practices to clean energy companies is, well, we don't have McDonald's budget, which is true. I don't have an oil and gas industry-level budget, true. If you were gonna coach my sector in beginning to take the steps to try to close the gap between the level of sophistication and soundness of a mature industry's public affairs practices and where our folks are right now in the middle of their second decade of growth, what would you recommend they start doing?


The Importance of a Long-Term Perspective in Public Affairs



Jonathan Drobis:

It's a great question, Mike. I think, to start looking at approaching the public affairs and advocacy from a long-term perspective. It's an immediate challenge, what you're talking about in terms of taking market share from an entrenched and powerful sector. And to address this means building what you're going to build for the rest of 2023 in a way that is going to feed into what you're trying to get done in 2027 and 2030. And from where I sit on the building, you want to be able to effectively make the case for yourself, but you need to be able to bring, particularly when you're in a tough fight, and these are tough fights already and they're going to get tougher, you need to bring friends with you. And it's always easier to ask somebody to do something if you asking them to do something isn't the first piece of contact they've had with you. If you've got a long, existing relationship that involves ongoing two-way communication, where they understand where you're coming from and you understand where they're coming from because that is where you can build mutual trust. So that's at an individual level. What does that look like bringing it out to a broader long-term level? It means systematically building allies to what we were talking about here, Mike, around your base, but then building outward to who will be indirectly impacted. And I know that companies do this in terms of cleantech, clean energy companies when they're building projects, looking at the businesses that will be impacted by construction and those others that will be, if you look at an economic impact study, the indirect benefits. But then getting another, if you think about it in concentric circles, you've got direct benefits, indirect benefits. Who are the members of the community, going back to the folks that will influence your decision-makers, who have shared interests and common interests? They may not be a direct benefit from your project or your company doing well, but you share values and you have mutual interests that may not be the same as funding for your school, but where a relationship can be developed because if you're in a tough fight, you need as many friends as possible. So that means starting with being able to educate, activate, and deploy your base. We're talking about employers and suppliers. And continue to build outward from there, but do it in a way where you're not just talking about what's in front of you, you're talking about the long-term. So you can go back to folks, and it's not the first time that you've talked to them and asked them for something because you're much more likely to get a positive response when you do.



Building a Strong Support Base and Effective Communication Strategies



Mike Casey:

So just to make sure I heard correctly we have a fair amount of variability in program sophistication among the top 10-20 renewable energy developers. But by and large, you think that the place for them to begin building out their program is in the ability to build a base of support early and build an echo chamber around their ask. Is that correct? 

Jonathan Drobis:

Yep. Those things. And doing it in a systematic way where each local fight that you have ladders up to any priorities that you have at the state level, and then the federal level. So making sure that thinking about echo chamber means engaging the types of allies that we're talking about in terms of different community organizations and everything from local businesses to churches and nonprofits to make sure that they understand where you're coming from, engaging them as allies and finding ways for them to help you in the public policy challenges that you have. But doing that in a way where what you're doing in a town and who you're talking to in that town can also help you maybe next year if you need to do something on permitting it at the state level or if there's a bill in Congress that matters, that you've got both your internal system in place and your external engagement in the teams that you have, that they have visibility into all those priorities and that they're thinking about them. That extends to any external consultants that you may be working with as well.



Aligning Community Investments with Public Policy Goals



Mike Casey:

I think that's actually an important point because I hear in what you're saying that your clients, though they have budgets that would be the envy of almost everybody in our industry, they do not haphazardly distribute philanthropic money in a community. They're giving with purpose. That's one thing I heard. The second thing I heard was that they're your clients use past investment in community relations building for the next 10 campaigns they're going to engage in. In other words, they use their built infrastructure, they use their sunk public affairs cost to lower future public affairs costs. Is that accurate?

Jonathan Drobis:

It is accurate and we definitely and for all this I think I'm speaking to the companies that do this well. There is tight alignment between philanthropic and sponsorship CSR budgets whatever the term the company using, tight alignment between those and their public policy priorities, and again echoing that theme of doing it, doing it for the long term. When thinking about maintaining that engagement before, during, and after a fight. And that means, one, just checking in with your allies that have been good to you and that you need, but sponsorships and philanthropy and community contributions are a piece of that, and doing that in a way where it's not just when you need something. I realized that can be challenging at times when you have a lot of different fights spread out but, and this is where I get to the long-term stuff, as time moves forward, those fights will overlap. And the friends that you had in a fight three years ago, they're going to need to help you next year and you need to keep that engagement ongoing and fresh and genuine.



Conclusion and Parting Advice



Mike Casey:

Jonathan, short conversation, very rich. Thanks for joining us. I appreciate it. Is there any last parting advice you would give to clean economy companies that are working in rural communities, asking them to consider having our companies be their neighbors?

Jonathan Drobis:

If you are as a company running into political challenges, which many of these are at their core, make sure that you have political people or folks who are trained in the craft, who you have available and part of your team to solve those problems. From my experience you can often avoid bigger problems on the front end by having folks with the political know-how who have their ear in a way they can understand, basically see the problem or hear the problem before it comes and when there are tough challenges, those are the people that you need around you.

Mike Casey:

That's a great point, Jonathan. Thanks for adding it.

Topics: Scaling Clean Podcast