Hilltop on the Hill 2013

Eight students are in Washington, D.C., in October 2013 as part of SMU’s Hilltop on the Hill program. The students will visit media and government sites, and meet with political communicators, journalists and SMU alumni. The trip is led by Rita Kirk, professor of communication studies in Meadows School of the Arts and director of the Maguire Center for Ethics & Public Responsibility; Sandra Duhé, chair of communication studies, associate professor and director of the Meadows School’s public relations program; and Candy Crespo, assistant director of the Maguire Center for Ethics & Public Responsibility. Endowed by the Bauer Foundation, the Hilltop on the Hill program also takes students studying political communication to political party conventions, the presidential Inauguration and the G8 Economic Summit.

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Shadows of the government shutdown

KatelynAn update from Katelyn, a junior double-majoring in journalism and theatre in Meadows School of the Arts, with a special emphasis in international politics in Dedman College:

Americans across the nation are feeling the effects of the government shutdown, and being in D.C. now offers a clear look at what the situation looks like at the heart of itself – and, staying true to its label, many aspects of our nation’s capital are entirely shut down.

The effect of the shutdown not only on government entities – of which all deemed “nonessential” are closed until the crisis is resolved – but also on the businesses that revolve around government interaction arose as a question in each of the meetings the Hilltop group visited today.

In speaking with directors and executives at a major international broadcast news company, the group heard that one limiting factor its reporters are facing is the fact that many of their contacts in government cannot be reached for comment, as their phones are shut down during the furlough period. Specifically citing park rangers and nonessential – but still key for media matters – personnel, our contacts explained that it has put a rather significant stop on getting news from the affected employees.

However, they cited one interesting and, perhaps even more effective than usual, side effect of the shutdown – staffers in Congress have been furloughed, but Congressional members have not. Thus, reporters have a direct, virtually uninhibited reach to the nation’s representatives, via a number of communications (including phone, email, and in-person). The conversations can be slightly more candid and obviously far more immediate, free of red tape and many protocols.

But beyond media access and the transparency it has – or does not have – with aspects of the government during the furlough period, there is the question of entities who are perceived (albeit falsely) to rest even further out of reach of the shutdown.

A public relations firm shared insight pertaining to its federal accounts, as well as its clients whose work depends on the decisions made by Congress and the government in their industry. One of the firm’s senior vice presidents said that while the shutdown has halted some of the relevant case work, it has also allowed for additional time to expand on or re-create solutions and tactics in these accounts to better serve clients when the government is once again in working order. By having relatively unexpected leeway time, an allowance for fine-tuning and revisiting of methods, research, and plans in place to move forward has arisen – offering the opportunity to improve facets of these accounts for better chance of success once everything is back in action.

Beyond firms with clients who may be aspects of the government lie the large companies whose work depends on the laws passed and even more temporary decisions made on the federal level. One worldwide oil and gas company spoke to the fact that while the government shutdown is doing no good, there is at least benefit in the fact that it’s doing nothing at all – in the sense that the company is not missing out on opportunities any other company may be privy to. While Congress is inactive in its normality sense, no bills are being passed that would affect the oil and gas industry, be those impacts positive or negative.

The overall consensus in Washington carries a level of annoyance – I often hear remarks regarding the hard-line conservatives’ needs to “get over their election loss” and get back to “doing their job.” One high-ranking PR representative today put the work – or lack thereof – of Congress into the context of doing their job versus fighting for “concessions.” Their job is to pass the budget; doing their job does not earn them the prize of overthrowing a healthcare plan – as contentious as it is – that has already been made law.

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