It just took 15 hours. That’s how long Chris Martin was required to spend volunteering on a campaign of his choice back in 2012 when he was an undergrad at the University of South Florida. But after knocking doors and making phone calls for Mitt Romney’s presidential bid, he wasn’t prepared to walk away.
Instead, he was offered a full-time job running a field office in Brandon, Florida. He’s since worked his way up from roles in Wisconsin to a regional comms job at the NRCC and on to Capitol Hill. He was at America Rising PAC before helping launch Look Ahead Strategies, a subsidiary of Bullpen Strategy Group.
C&E: Tell us about what the new firm does.
Martin: I would say the two core service offerings are communications and research. I think what makes us a little bit different than most is we really like to incorporate FOIA and field research into what we do. So if the candidate that we’re digging into has held public office at some point, or been in a position where there are FOIA-able records, we always like to incorporate that type of stuff. And then also dispatching field agents out to courthouses and things like that to find those more difficult-to-obtain records that you can’t just find online.
C&E: How do you incorporate this research into your clients’ creative?
Martin: We’ll plug in and work with direct mail firms on a campaign. We’ll go down as far as the door-knocking firm, the digital firm, the digital fundraising firm to get them the content they need to make compelling messages and reach voters. We’re providing the assets they need, whether we’re digging up a clip of an opposition candidate saying something unsavory that goes into a TV ad, or maybe it’s something that goes into a door knocker. Maybe it’s something that the campaign can use in a fundraising email, but we’re kind of the hub for all of that content, and we work with the different vendors on the campaign to get them what they need.
C&E: So you’re helping feed the content beast.
Martin: It’s kind of like an assembly line. You get good research and good content, and then the communications team figures out what’s the best way to get that out in front of voters. If you’re talking about a campaign, typically they’ll come to us and say, ‘Okay, we need to do some due diligence. We have a few candidates in this race who we want to take a look at. And then we also want to take a look at ourselves.’ We always recommend doing what we call a vulnerability study on the clients who come to us and figure out where their vulnerabilities are.
Then we’ll partner with a polling firm to message test those attacks and actually put hard data behind what performs well. So when we deliver the product to the campaign, we can say, ‘Look, you know, there’s no guesswork involved here. There’s real data behind these messages and what will actually move voters in your favor.’
C&E: I know you also do earned media for clients, are you looking beyond traditional outlets for that?
Martin: I think there are a lot more non-traditional ways to get that information in front of people. It could be something like getting a surrogate on Twitter to tweet about it, and all of a sudden reporters see it there and pick it up. One example would be [2020 Democratic Senate candidate] Cal Cunningham, when he was running in North Carolina. There was this whole sexting scandal that came up, that started with a reporter who did not work for a traditional news outlet writing about it, tweeting about it. Conservative media picked it up and it blew up, and it made its way into campaign ads and became the defining issue in that race.
C&E: So influencers are a big part of your comms strategy?
Martin: I would say it’s a massive part of it — figuring out, who are your surrogates? Who can take the things that we’re finding and really give them a voice? Because you don’t always want your candidate talking about certain issues, especially if they’re attacking their opponent. So you want to find those third-party validators to get things in front of journalists and other political operatives and stakeholders. But I hate the term influencers because it makes me think of Instagram influencers.
C&E: What’s the bigger challenge creatively: is it finding the outlet for the story or packaging the research into a narrative?
Martin: The hardest part is taking really complicated policy issues and condensing them into something that’s digestible for everyday people. Comms is very relationship-based, so obviously making sure you understand which reporters are interested in what type of content is key, because you can spin your wheels for days or weeks pitching a piece of oppo to the wrong reporter who just doesn’t cover that beat or isn’t interested in that topic.
So I would say, first of all, condensing the research into something that people can understand, that’s citable because you don’t want them to have to go back and recheck all your work, which they probably do in the editing process anyway. And then also figuring out the right place to take that, whether it’s a reporter or even people with political blogs in different states.