Seems like every campaign has a consultant, nowadays. In the old days, volunteers ran campaigns, filling envelopes, licking stamps, making phone calls and stuffing mail boxes.
Yes…stuffing mail boxes. It was supposed to be illegal, but campaign volunteers in low-budget campaigns (and in the 60s, 70s and 80s all local races were low-budget) would drive just out of the postman’s view and insert campaign literature in the box before the homeowner collected the mail. It looked like mail, but the campaign saved the postage and back then gas was cheaper than stamps. There was a lot of “unstuffing” by opponents, but that’s a story for another day.
Let’s refocus on consultants. The growth of modern campaigns gave rise to campaign consultants. Now, like that line in Ray Stevens 1970s hit, The Streak, “they’re everywhere, they’re everywhere.” These days, it seems that anyone who has volunteered in a campaign is qualified as a consultant.
So, being in the consulting business, let me share a secret. Not every campaign needs a consultant. Consultants add a layer of overhead to a campaign that some low-budget races simply can’t absorb. They spend more on consultants than they do on voter contact. That is a misplaced priority. At least 75 percent of your budget must go to voter contact.
Yet, some candidates don’t think they are really a candidate until they have a consultant. So, let’s start with the basics. Every campaign should ask two questions about consultants. Why do I need a consultant? Often, you can find a good local free-lance graphic designer to design your yard signs, brochure and a few mail pieces that talk about the important issues. They can probably do a simple website.
That’s mostly what consultants do for you in most small district, small budget campaigns. If you’re willing to go door-to-door, that’s all you need. Result: major savings. How do you know when you need a consultant?
One, if the district is so large that managing the details of your campaign consumes more time than voter contact and fund raising. Any candidate who spends less than 75 percent of the time talking to voters and raising money is out of balance. Even then, if you have a well organized friend or neighbor who can handle the details, you still may not need a consultant.
Consultants really earn their money in local, district and statewide races when it is a highly competitive race, when a candidate can’t get his/her message to resonate with the voters, professional ads and mail become important and the details overwhelm even the most organized volunteer.
Competitive races mean the candidate must devote his/her full attention to voter contact and fundraising. Some county commission races, mayor/council races in larger towns/cities, legislative races and higher, due to their competitive nature, obviously need someone to help the candidate strategize and articulate their message.
So, if you need a consultant, how do you choose one? Incumbents tend to “dance with the one that brung them.” After all, that consultant got me elected the first time; he/she can get me elected again.
Maybe. Every consultant has a basic formula they follow in races, primarily based on what seemed to work in the past. Like generals who always fight the last war, consultants rely on tactics that worked in the last campaign cycle. Unfortunately, that makes them predictable. If you’ve relied on the same consultant for a couple of races, you may become predictable, too. So, you may need to rethink your consultant.
Consultants compete against each other like football coaches. After a while, you learn your competitors’ playbook and tendencies, so you prepare for them. When they make the move you expect, if you’re a smart consultant – WHAM - you’re waiting on them behind the line of scrimmage. SACK. But the person sacked isn’t the consultant, it’s the candidate. Worse yet is an inexperienced or wanna-be consultant.
A good consultant understands how to fend off an opponent’s attack and get the campaign back on message. Consultants earn their fees when they help a candidate snatch victory from the masticating jaws of defeat by developing counter tactics for an opponent’s attack pieces.
Inexperienced consultants may be unpredictable, but are they skilled enough to handle the crises and attacks that are part of any campaign? If they give you the wrong advice in handling an attack, you may make the attack more deadly. Consulting appears to be a glamorous job, so many who can’t be a candidate wanna-be consultants.
Everyone has to start somewhere, of course. But, do you want your campaign to serve as a technical training school for political consultants?
Maybe. If you don’t have the resources to hire a more experienced consultant, you might try an evolving consultant – but negotiate the fees and rates very carefully. You shouldn’t pay full price – you should extract a “training fee” in the bargain.
When choosing on a consultant, why not shop around? Personal chemistry between you and your consultant is important. So are shared values. Good consultants force candidates out of their comfort zone, but never push them to do things that violate their values, conscience or the law.
And, why not bargain. Campaign consulting is a competitive business and consulting fees vary widely among consultants. Campaign funds are hard to come by, so get the most out of them – including your consulting fees. Also, compare the materials produced by several consultants.
Check out the graphic designs. Do they look professional? Do you prefer one consultant’s work over another? Does the work of one consultant really stand out over the others? Your graphics must stand out in a crowded field – literally – to be noticed. Does the consultant’s work accomplish that objective?
Be sure you understand the consultant’s fee structure and the services you get in return. To help make consultant shopping easier, here is a checklist of questions you should pose to any consultant you consider hiring.
• How long have you been managing campaigns?
• What education or training do you have in campaign management?
• How often do you take refresher courses?
• How do you stay up-to-date on the latest campaign techniques?
• How many races have you managed/consulted?
• How many races have you consulted like this one?
• What’s your win/loss ratio? (Give me the candidates who you managed in the last two cycles and the outcomes in each race)
• Do you work with Republicans and Democrats – or just one party?
• How many races will you be managing this cycle? Do you cap the number of races you take?
• How do you deal with conflicts of interest?
• What is your fee structure and what specific services do your fees cover?
• How often will you and I sit down face-to-face to review my campaign? (Key question)
• Have you ever been fired from a campaign? Why? (Every decent consultant has been fired, usually because of compatibility issues – but you want to find out)
• Have you ever quit a campaign in the middle of a race? Who? Why?
• Are you willing to submit to a criminal background check? (Don’t want consultant’s background to become a campaign issue).
• How do you pay your vendors? (Don’t want unpaid bills to pop up in a race).
• Have you ever been sued by a client?
• How much advertising liability insurance do you carry? (If their ads get you sued, this is a vital question – a million dollars is the minimum).
• Can I see your consulting contract?
• Can I have your cell phone, home phone, business phone, pager and email addresses?
• Are you available 24/7 in case of emergency?
Truthfully, consultants are a necessity in most mid-ballot and higher races today. If your opponent has one, you probably need one to offset the competitive advantage of the professionally designed ads and mail.
While grassroots party activists still can play a big role in races, the days of a dozen party volunteers stuffing every mailbox in the district are long gone. In compact geographic districts, volunteers can still knock on doors – the most effective campaign technique ever invented.
Yet, it’s expertly designed ads and mail, insights into the evolving world of digital media, professional experience in helping candidates articulate their message, while fighting and responding to the inevitable negative ads and campaign attacks from your opponent that can make the difference between winning and losing. But in choosing consultants – choose wisely.
Rusty Paul is former Georgia GOP Chairman, state senator and long-time campaign consultant for state and local campaigns. He did his masters work in Campaigns & Elections at Georgia State University. iSquared Communications is a political consultant helping Republican candidates in state and local races. Email him at www.RustyPaul@isquaredcommunications.com