At 4 a.m. a few weeks ago, I woke up to a flood. A pipe had burst in the dead space above my bathroom, collapsing the ceiling and spraying gallons of pressurized hot water into my apartment each minute.
I got to work. I dammed the bathroom door with towels, funneled water into the tub and sink via a Rube Goldberg arrangement of pans and buckets, and used a pot to bail like a sailor on a sinking lifeboat. Almost four hours and literally tons of water later, a plumber finally arrived and found the shutoff valve in a locked space next to my place. The flood was over, and the cleanup began.
The thing is, I was lucky — I was home. If the pipe had blown a few hours earlier, I would have come back from an evening with friends to an apartment full of water. If it had happened when I was out of town, no one would have known anything was wrong until the flood seeped into the hall through the walls and under the front door.
I thought about that moment at this month’s Reed Awards conference, where several sessions covered remote work and the role of consultants. Of course, it makes sense for campaigns to outsource some tasks and get expert help with others. Just about every campaign below the presidential level will leave TV ad production to the pros, for example, along with jobs like opposition research, polling and media-buying. But some, especially understaffed down-ballot campaigns, may be tempted to do the same with digital outreach.
Again, some digital tasks, such as placing complex ad buys, are often best left to people who do them every day. Plus, just about any campaign can benefit from the kind of insights that a consulting firm steeped in digital politics will bring. But outsourcing all of a candidate’s digital outreach and communications to a consulting firm sounds dangerous to me, for exactly the reason I was lucky the day I fought a flood.
Something always goes wrong on a campaign. Sometimes it’s your fault, like when an unflattering email leaks or a bad old Facebook post surfaces. Sometimes your opponent will do the damage, via attacks of the more or less valid variety.
That’s when having a digital staffer on the ground can really make the difference. Someone embedded in the campaign should have easy access to the candidate and the communications staff, allowing them to make sure that the rapid response effort uses online channels effectively and immediately. They should also be intimately familiar with the campaign’s messaging and the content available for immediate use.
Most consulting firms can move quickly when needed, but they’re still likely at some distance from a fast-changing situation. And if trouble breaks out at the height of campaign season, they may be stretched thin at the critical moment. When something goes truly wrong, you don’t want to have to wait for your consultant to return your calls. You need someone to update Facebook and crank out a response email this minute.
Ideally, a campaign would have both angles covered. A staffer or two would handle the day-to-day digital communications, even if they have to split their time between feeding the internet and doing other jobs. Meanwhile, a consultant or firm would help with overall strategy as well as take on more-complex tasks or ones that require specialized knowledge.
But outsourcing a campaign’s entire online operation? A big risk. Someday a flood will come, and you’ll definitely want someone there to fight it. Trust me on that one.
Colin Delany is founder and editor of the award-winning website Epolitics.com, author of “How to Use the Internet to Change the World – and Win Elections,” a twenty-five-year veteran of online politics and a perpetual skeptic. See something interesting? Send him a pitch at firstname.lastname@example.org.