As hiring reaches its zenith for campaigns and some firms over the next few weeks, managers will face a dilemma: how much digital experience do candidates need for a digital job?
Many positions already have technical requirements, but the demand for digital skills could increase this cycle as most aspects of campaigning have moved online because of the pandemic.
That may drain the talent pool of experienced staffers and cause more practitioners without digital experience to try to move into that specialized area.
The good news for those looking to make the move is that some top digital consultants aren’t looking for candidates with digital backgrounds. In fact, Parks Bennett, founder & CEO of Campaign Inbox, an email marketing and technology company, told C&E he prefers to train new hires on digital tools.
“It’s definitely all teachable,” he said. “Once you get through [the training], and people are up to speed on what you’re trying to accomplish, it works out better than someone having a lot of knowledge and trying to apply it.”
Bennett noted that 24-26-year-old candidates have been dealing with digital tools their whole lives. Instead of work experience in digital, he looks for candidates with an interest in politics and the right mentality.
“You really have to want to win,” he said. “If you have a good mentor and teacher and trainer, then you’re going to pick up on these things, the tactics, how they work, much faster than if you’re just there to get a paycheck.”
For campaigns, he noted that managers have different considerations to weigh, like whether the digital staffer is doing everything themselves or working with a firm.
During the Democratic presidential primary, Alexis Magnan-Callaway, digital mobilization director for Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's effort, tested out a theory that candidates with organizing experience, but no digital background, would be better hires than those who’d held positions with online titles.
“I firmly believe that if you understand the basic tenants and the fundamentals of good organizing, I can teach you the digital tools,” she said during her Exit Interview with ACRONYM. “It’s harder the other way around. It’s hard to picture those things if you haven’t been an organizer.”
Her hiring strategy wasn’t universally embraced. “People thought I was nuts and I did get push back.”
But she persisted, ignoring resumes from candidates from digital firms and hiring state digital directors for Iowa and New Hampshire who hadn’t worked in digital before.
“I really worried about their ability to support an organizing department, and their ability to run a strong online organizing program without ever having been a field organizer — that’s the hardest part of the job,” Magnan-Callaway. “We can build beautiful Facebook groups, my question was can you recruit, manage and maintain a great volunteer program? I felt like organizers were the best people to do that.”
For other practitioners, it’s a question of timing. Training new hires on digital can be time consuming, notes Rory McShane, a GOP consultant.
“Digital tools are trainable, but it takes a while to learn to use them well and understand the intricacies that come with political digital as opposed to corporate digital marketing,” he said. “At our firm all of our digital staff have both a digital and political background, we do have staff with only a political background but they never touch digital ad placements and only advise the digital team.”
Sam Osborne Reynolds, who was digital director of the Republican National Convention in 2016, cautioned against hiring, say, a candidate with a long communications resume for an entry-level digital position.
"I've seen some folks who completely crash and burn,” she said. "Those folks struggle because I think they're further along with their career path, [and] it's hard to really understand digital because they never had to put their hands on it.”
It’s also hard to hire candidates from corporate or commercial marketing digital positions. "The way people do digital outside of politics is so different,” she said. “Bad habits can be very hard to break.”
Another deal-breaker for Osborne Reynolds is a candidate who doesn’t understand the schedule of a digital team on a campaign. "You've got to know that one, someone can work fast, and [two], can they think on their feet? … If they ask you what the hours are, you know it's not going to work."