Advocacy groups have been gearing up faster than usual for the 2018 cycle. As they prepare surrogates for public appearances, they have a new research tool to conduct reputation risk management.
Veteran opposition researcher Mike Phillips recently founded Vigilant and is marketing the tech firm’s services as a way to figure out “who is advocating on your behalf? Who is out there as a voice on your issue?”
Opposition research is a sector of the campaign industry that’s been left largely undisrupted by technology. While search engines and the posting of public documents online has eased researchers’ workloads, their processes are fundamentally unchanged, according to Phillips.
“This is largely an industry that’s dependent on technology, but not a space that people have been building tools for,” he said.
Vigilant, which bills itself as a California-based tech startup, is an attempt to change that. The company offers clients a “highly accessible search platform” that scours public records available in different databases.
“Whatever your search needs are, you can run them through one place at the same time,” said Phillips. “That gives the research team a chance to spend their time making sense of the information, instead of searching one database after another.”
Users can also save searches and create alerts in the system.
Social media research has become an essential part of oppo in 2017. Phillips notes that while his service can’t be used to do staff vetting, it can be used for oppo or screening of potential political appointees.
Twitter, he said, is the easiest to search. “You see Twitter profiles that might match your subject and then drill down into the content they’ve shared,” he said.
The service is billed on a subscription model with a sliding scale depending on the campaign. Phillips notes that more and more records are being made available online. In this environment, even if a campaign wants to skimp on paying for the research and do the work themselves, they still need to be able to digest the information.
That’s another area where Phillips sees an opening. “We build in a lot of tools for drilling into that data,” he said. Still, it’s up to the campaign to decide what’s ultimately usable from the company’s reports.
One of Vigilant's customers last cycle was the Clinton campaign, which was criticized for failing to capitalize on the trove of opposition research material available on now-President Trump. While the Clinton camp subscribed to Vigilant for general vetting and diligence purposes, not opposition research, Phillips noted, “there was no shortage of stories around Trump.” In other words, the power of research is limited to how a campaign can use it to shape the media narrative.
Meanwhile, if a campaign doesn’t invest in research as a result of the failure of one campaign’s results, “you’re basically going to get what everybody already knows,” Phillips said. “You get what you pay for.”