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Consultants Step Into the Spotlight

Politico, November 9, 2013

By Anna Palmer

For years, political consultants operated in the shadows, quietly running the field operations, polling and advertising strategy that keep candidates in the spotlight and propel them to victory.

Now they’ve got a new move: self-promotion.

Just hours after the polls closed last week, consultants and interest groups started taking credit for Terry McAuliffe’s victory in Virginia and Bill de Blasio’s landslide win in New York.

The behind-the-scenes players were suddenly out in front, firing off press releases and volunteering for media interviews.

It’s a shift that’s a must-do in an increasingly competitive and lucrative field. Before one campaign ends, it’s time to start finding the next gig with a new candidate or even a corporate or special interest.

“The permanent campaign never ends. They aren’t just marketing themselves to candidates; it’s to companies, to causes, to whoever else,” said John Feehery of Quinn Gillespie & Associates. “These are no longer fly-by-night operations. They are mature businesses.”

And they aren’t shy about pushing their work.

Hilltop Public Solutions blasted an email out to the media Wednesday morning featuring the work some of its top operatives did for New York-mayor elect De Blasio.

“Bill and Chirlane McCray are longtime friends of the firm, and we have been honored to provide strategic advice and communications services to Bill’s campaign since its infancy,” the firm wrote. “Hilltop’s Nick Baldick, Rebecca Katz and David Kieve have worked with Bill in New York since his 2009 race for Public Advocate and have been privileged to help guide his journey from underdog to Mayor-elect.”

Similarly, consulting firm Potomac Waves pushed out an email highlighting the targeted media campaign to reach black voters in Virginia for McAuliffe’s campaign for governor.

“Potomac Waves’ Sharon Páez joined the campaign early on and formed part of the media team to incorporate ethnic media in the campaign’s plans,” the firm wrote. “According to the election results, these efforts paid off, as voters in Richmond, Newport News, Hampton Roads and Roanoke turned out overwhelmingly to support Terry McAuliffe for Governor.”

Veteran Democratic operative Larry Rasky explained that it’s all part of the explosion of the industry.

“It goes with the culture — personal brand has gotten to be more important than trust,” said Rasky, chairman of Rasky Baerlein Strategic Communications and a longtime political adviser to Vice President Joe Biden. “Like everything else, it’s been put on steroids by both the velocity and the competitiveness of the business.”

Super PACs and third-party groups that play an increasingly big role in helping prop up candidates through ads, rallies and get out the vote efforts also use political wins to message their effectiveness to donors and others.

For instance, the Democratic super PAC Fund for Jobs, Growth and Security, which was formed to focus on New Jersey, promoted its model of using strategies in national races at the state-level.

The message: The group played an important role in building a firewall at the state legislature and increasing the minimum wage.

And no race is too small to mention.

EMILY’s List pumped up women mayoral candidates and even mentioned “glass ceiling breakers” like Raquel Castaneda-Lopez, the first Hispanic elected to the Detroit City Council.

The decision to highlight the work isn’t surprising to many in the industry.

“When you are victorious, many consultants who have spent a lot of time behind the scenes working really hard see this as an opportunity to take a little bit of a victory lap,” said Doug Thornell of SKDKnickerbocker.

SKDKnickerbocker hyped the role it played in winning campaigns in the 2012 election, sending out a release noting it “played a critical role” in a number of races, including for Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and with the Senate Majority PAC in Connecticut, Ohio, Missouri and Florida.

But self-promotion does have limits.

“You never see firms talk about all the good work they did for a losing candidate,” Thornell said.

In part, the personal PR campaigns have gone hand in hand with the increase in political consultants looking to use their campaign prowess as a platform to start firms and attract high-paying corporate clients.

“There’s a whole group of potential clients who want to know how their campaign coalition can benefit from that expertise,” said Michael Meehan of Squared Communications.

Corporate America’s quest for the latest “special sauce” to help fix their problems in Washington has fueled the exodus of campaign advisers to President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign to K Street. And the culture of branding campaigns and the media focus on profiling confidants to candidates also adds to the storyline.

“It used to be the client was the story as opposed to the consultant,” said Shana Glickfield of BeeKeeper Group. “Consultants were very hidden; now it’s the opposite. … It’s totally socially acceptable, whereas years ago, you never wanted to be the story; that was frowned upon.”

Not all of the releases are just about making more money and building personal brands.

Veteran Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg — who was featured in a release for his work analyzing exit poll data for the Women’s Voices Women Vote Action Fund — said for him it wasn’t about getting his name out there.

“We’ve been doing this so long,” Greenberg said. “This is what we do. We try to impact elections. We try to win elections. … The last thing that occurred to me before we put out the release on the exit poll or the three tweets I did yesterday is that I was going to make more money.”

Read full article: Politico, November 9, 2013