From foreign interference to the emergence of deep fake audio and video tech, equipping a campaign comms shop to deal with whatever may come its way in 2018 and beyond is a unique challenge.
Do campaigns need to adjust how they view rapid response? How about training on how to spot a deep fake? What’s the new calculus for opposition research?
C&E sat down with Rodell Mollineau, the former head of American Bridge 21st Century and communications advisor to top Democrats on Capitol Hill. Now a partner at Rokk Solutions, Mollineau assessed the current state of research and offered some advice on structuring a comms shop in a new era for digital communication.
C&E: How has the nature of rapid response changed given the rise of digital disinformation and the frequent denunciations of so-called Fake News?
Rodell Mollineau: Well, here’s my take on this: I know there are a lot of people who stay away from social media; I’m one of them. I’m not a tweeter by any stretch of the imagination, and I try to keep my Facebook focused on personal stuff. But it helps to understand if you’re in business or politics, you really need to engage in building your community. When it comes to rapid response, if you don’t have any friends when something happens and you need to start looking around for friends, you’re screwed. You need to crisis communicate, not crisis manage.
I preach that to my clients in political and corporate: go to those you can trust, whether it’s your donor base or your voters. When a crisis emerges, the stronger your digital community is, the easier it is for you to push back. So if you’re engaging in a meaningful and thoughtful way with your audiences daily and something comes out that’s maybe half true, they will have more patience with you. Take the social media side of it: in general, if you are a politician, if you are a member of congress with a good reputation, or a company with a good brand, people are more apt to give you the benefit of the doubt.
C&E: What’s your level of concern over actual fakes – namely fake video and audio?
Mollineau: I think we need to be more vigilant. It’s not just us dealing with this. The government is dealing with this and corporations are dealing with this. We are still fighting the wars of 2016, and I’m not necessarily sure we are ready for the wars to come. When it comes to deep fake video and deep fake audio, here’s where I land on this: one, we shouldn’t bury our heads in the sand on this, and two, we need to do more. And when I say we, I’m not just talking about consultants. I mean the government and corporations as well. They need to get the public ready for this.
C&E: On the campaign side of that, how should you prep the comms shop to deal with it?
Mollineau: This is going to take many different shapes, sizes and forms, so we can’t police all of it. We can’t even monitor all of it. There are a few companies looking at providing educational tools to the public, especially on deep fake video. Essentially, trying to teach them how to spot a deep fake, telling them “here’s where you check for HD,” or what have you. I think the more the public is aware of these tools, the more likely they are to spot a deep fake, or to not share this information. But then you look at where the problem lies. It’s not the making of the deep fake itself, it’s the people willingly sharing it, and their thousand friends sharing it with their thousand friends, without any bit of the scrutiny it deserves. So I think the public education part of it is big because you’re not going to stop the technology. I think that’s foolhardy. We’ll need technology to thwart the bad actors.
One of my clients is the Transatlantic Commission on Election Integrity. The reason I bring this up is that the idea of the commission is to foster cooperation in the US and the EU in combatting election interference. They’re dealing with the same things we deal with here, and in some ways they deal with them even more. So how do we cooperate on information and best practice?
C&E: How about the impact on opposition research? How does our current media environment change the calculus for researchers?
Mollineau: I think you can look at this moment in history in one of two ways. Look at Trump and his aversion to the truth. It’s hard for the fact checkers and the journalists to keep up. You can say, “The dam has broken.” Or, you can look at this and think it’s an aberration, and that we’ll get back to a point where institutions are trusted and truth matters. I try to not be naïve about this stuff, but I tend to side with the latter.
I look forward to a time when truth matters, which is why I think opposition research is incredibly important. One of the things most important about the work American Bridge does is that it’s not just the research — it’s the research with the tracking. So watching a politician say one thing, and having research show they have done or said the other, is extremely powerful. The president’s ability to do what he does in the political space doesn’t transfer to all political candidates, so the work that Bridge does is still extremely important, especially in those Senate races and gubernatorial races and House races.
C&E: Have the core concepts of oppo research become warped in some way? In the same breath that people talk about oppo, you’ll hear Cambridge Analytica and Wikileaks or Steele dossier.
Mollineau: Do I think it’s been warped? No. I think research is still centered on fact-based argument. So what Bridge does is important to that extent. The arguments being made are fact-based arguments, which lead to compelling narratives, and compelling narratives hopefully lead to winning campaigns. But credibility does matter. Some people equate false information or smear tactics with opposition research, and we’re talking about two different things. Apples and oranges here. One of the reasons Bridge got to be the juggernaut it is today is the credibility it has built up in the media for being straight shooters with the research.
C&E: For someone learning the craft of research, what sort of things are you teaching now that you didn’t a decade ago?
Mollineau: The amount of information there is to vet continues to grow. It’s not so much about teaching it as it is about the reality if how much more information you need to wade through in order to come up with a comprehensive research packet today. That just means more hours and more eyes. And part of this is researching digital content. It’s not just clips. It’s everything you did ten years ago plus Twitter plus Facebook plus YouTube. So digital content is great when you’re on the comms side, and it’s actually great if you’re on the research side as well. It all just takes longer now, and there are more sources.
C&E: Turning to the outlook for November, what’s your read on where things stand right now for Democrats?
Mollineau: A good friend keeps telling me this awful joke: "Things haven’t looked this good for Democrats since the day before the November 2016 election.” It’s a painful reminder that we need to stay vigilant and take nothing for granted. 100 days is a political ice age in politics and we have no idea what may come. Remember Ebola and ISIS beheadings? I bet you some of the Dems who lost in 2014 do.
That said, our candidates are talking about the right issues. Affordable health care remains a top issue for many Americans and after eight years of trying to kill the ACA, voters are seeing Republicans as the problem. And while President Trump and Republicans continue to tout their tax plan, many voters haven’t reaped the benefit they were promised. We must continue to engage our base and not take for granted that they will turn out because of their hatred of Trump. We don’t have the best midterm track record so being out in communities talking about why this election is important and our vision for America if we take back the House or Senate majority in November is essential.
C&E: There’s so much to focus on from the Supreme Court to immigration to healthcare to Trump. Is there a national message that emerges from the mix of issues?
Mollineau: Oftentimes you’ll hear people ask, “Why don’t the Democrats have a better message?” Well, that’s because there are lots of them. Democrats have all got different constituencies, and they’ve got different ways of looking at this. So it shouldn’t surprise anybody that sometimes their messaging isn’t in sync. Republicans went through the same thing when they didn’t have the White House. When you’re not in power, when you don’t have the White House, it is hard to come up with a national message. You’re in the wilderness, and when this conversation happens, the same story is written every single time: “The party not in power is having trouble with messaging. When are they going to get it together?” The answer is that you don’t wind up coalescing around a message until you get a standard bearer, and you’re not going to get a standard bearer until 2020. So it’s hard this early, on Capitol Hill, to break through and to get that message consistency and amplification, because you have people rowing in different directions.