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The Right Fit: Finding a Government Relations Firm to Meet Your Needs
07 May 2014

The Right Fit: Finding a Government Relations Firm to Meet Your Needs

So, you have decided you need to hire a government relations firm to help you navigate the complicated world of politics and policy. But what is the right size firm for your needs? Do you go boutique? Seek out a large lobby shop with a few big names? Or an individual consultant with a solid resume?

Screen Shot 2014-05-07 at 12.39.01 PMAll good questions. For any business, university or other interests who wants to hire help, it’s really important to understand the answers to those questions up front.

Let’s start with understanding the difference between a lobby shop and a government affairs firm.

First of all, virtually every government affairs firm is a lobby shop, but they are also more. A good government affairs firm can provide strategic guidance both politically and in working with government offices, policy analysis, and more education without necessarily lobbying.

The term lobbyist (particularly more so now during the Obama Administration) has taken on a legal meaning, which essentially means interacting with governmental officials to achieve action by the government. It requires strict registration and guidelines.  It is because of the new rules and laws that government affairs firms have arisen versus the historical “lobby shop.”  In other words, there are legal ramifications to say you are a lobbyist and registered as such. The vernacular of the day is “government affairs.”

A public affairs firm is typically a government affairs firm with a public relations practice associated with it.  We at Capstone are a public affairs firm, as we frequently want to develop messages to the public around an issue, while at the same time working an issue in Washington. Having a public relations capability in house allows us to do so as part and parcel of our offering.

After you understand those distinctions, it’s time to choose what kind of firm.  Simplistically, your choices are large government affairs firms or law firms with a significant government affairs practice, boutique firms, or solo practitioners.  All have their place, depending on what you are trying to accomplish.

Large firms usually have some very senior former government officials with deep rolodexes who can pick up the phone and get senior policy makers on the line. They frequently have a vast scope of issues and substance, as well as ton of associates who do the vast majority of the work. It is through the associates that the business model is based so while clients absolutely can get the former senior official engaged, they will really be spending time with the associates.  Large firms also cost more. Think $25,000 to 100,000 a month in retainers. These are firms that you may want to think about hiring if you have a major national policy issue that you want to change. Just make sure you get the principals’ time.

Boutique firms, like Capstone, are typically made up of six to 20 people. Almost always the firms have former government officials and policy makers and are frequently built around one or two relatively high profile individuals. They may have a few associates but typically you are working directly with the principals in the firm. These firms may have more limited expertise either geographically or substantively. At Capstone, we pride ourselves in representing a variety of clients from Wisconsin and nationally, including universities, patient advocacy groups, and the entertainment community, but we focus on Defense, Energy and Education.

What boutique firms are great for is moving something forward. Think smart workhorses versus the 4-star general who can get anyone on the phone, but doesn’t know how to dial it themselves. Dollar wise, think $10,000 to $25,000 a month for these firms.

Last but not least is the solo practitioner. By definition, they don’t have a lot of bandwidth, but they likely have great knowledge on a narrow spectrum. These are great people to hire when you are looking for someone who runs a Washington office largely for you, but as a consultant and not your employee. The key here is you need to make sure that they only have a couple of clients – at the most.  Think $3,000 to $15,000 a month. At $15,000, they are almost full-time for you.

Hiring outside counsel is a big step – and a very smart move. Be sure that you’ve done your homework and know what it is you’re looking for and what you can afford.

Previously we talked about five steps to selecting a public relations agency, and we decoded Public Affairs.

Hopefully this will help you and your organization make an informed decision when hiring a government relations professional.


John Rogers


For more background on Capstone’s CEO, John C. Rogers, click here for his bio at Capstone or here for his Wikipedia entry.

Connect with him on LinkedIn or follow John on Twitter.




The views in this blog post represent the viewpoints of individual team members, not Capstone National Partners as a whole.

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