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Business

To build DC presence, Boston PR firm merges with rival

Rasky-Baerlein Strategic Communications of Boston will merge a Washington public relations company as it seeks to build its presence in the nation’s capital, where decisions have an increasing impact on Massachusetts businesses and the state economy.

Rasky-Baerlein, a public relations and lobbying firm, already has operations in Washington, but the deal with Prism, a 10-year-old firm, seeks to deepen the Boston company’s expertise in a changing regulatory and legislative climate. The merger, a stock transaction, will more than double the Boston firm’s staff in Washington, to 25 from 9, said chief executive Larry Rasky.

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Rasky and his partner, Joseph T. Baerlein, said Massachusetts companies recognize the importance of federal decisions to their businesses and expanding the firm’s footprint in Washington will allow it to better serve existing clients and attract new ones. Baerlein described the merger as a move to acquire talent and expand connections in the face of increased competition in the public relations and lobbying industry.

Rasky-Baerlein, which has been operating for 17 years, offers a wide range of government relations and communications services. With the merger, its overall employment will grow to 55 from 38.

“If you’re going to compete, you need to have a really deep bench,” Baerlein said.

Washington perhaps plays a bigger role than ever in Massachusetts as the state economy is dominated by industries that are heavily regulated, such as biotechnology and health care, or rely on federal funding, such as defense and universities. Many analysts blame the recent economic slowdown here partly on the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration.

John Hailer, chairman of the New England Council, a business lobbying group, pointed to two key Massachusetts industries in particular that are being reshaped by federal laws. The Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, is dramatically altering the landscape for hospitals and other health care-related business, while the Dodd-Frank financial overhaul law is changing how financial companies operate.

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“Washington is very much involved in our daily lives, and that comes with a lot of complexities,” Hailer said.

The way Congress and the federal government operate has also become more complex. When one of Rasky-Baerlein’s Boston competitors, O’Neill and Associates, opened its Washington office in 1991, it was easier for lobbyists to get access to members of Congress and secure funding for local projects through the appropriations process, said Anthony DeMaio, an associate director of the firm in Washington.

But changes in how Congress makes funding decisions, such as the elimination of special appropriations known as earmarks, and a boom in lobbying, public relations, and public affairs firms have made it harder to gain the interest and ear of lawmakers, DeMaio said. That requires an even greater knowledge and understanding of how Congress, the federal bureaucracy, and the media work.

“Strategies require more nuance,” he said. “Over the past couple of years, people have woken up to that.”

As gridlock in Congress has led to less legislative activity, businesses have focused energy on regulatory agencies and policy debates.

Eric Schultz, chief executive of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, a nonprofit insurer and Rasky-Baerlein client, said, it is particularly important for his organization and industry to have advocates in Washington as rules are developed to put the Affordable Care Act into place.

“Health care is a national conversation that radiates from Washington, and we need to be there and need to have a seat at the table, to influence a law that is evolving,” he said. “It’s great to have a set of advisers that know how to advance the agenda we may have. “

Prism specialized in building campaigns around policy issues, such as the “Find Me 911” campaign, which seeks to highlight problems first-responders have when trying to locate 911 callers who use a cellphone. The project is asking the FCC and Congress to develop up-to-date standards for location technology so emergency workers can pinpoint a cellphone caller’s location.

The main thrust of the campaign occurs online, where “Find Me 911” has received more than 170,000 supporters on Facebook. Baerlein said the campaign is similar to the type of national advocacy work he expects to see coming out of the merger.

The firms will operate under the name of Rasky Baerlein|Prism over the next three months before ultimately returning to Rasky Baerlein Strategic Communications.

Dale Leibach, a founding partner of Prism, said merging with a Boston-based firm was a natural fit.

“Washington plays, for better or for worse, a central role in Massachusetts business,” Leibach said. “It is incumbent that clients in those industries — financial services, energy, health care — have a seat at the table.”

Sean Lavery can be reached at sean.lavery@globe.com.

Correction: An earlier verison of this story incorrectly stated the nature of the deal between Rasky-Baerlein and Prism.

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