The “dirty dossier” on President Trump, which circled up and down Amtrak’s East Coast corridor and across the Atlantic before it was published by BuzzFeed, has thrust opposition research and its various uses and practitioners into some degree of the media spotlight. In this moment of publicity, it’s worth exploring how organizations other than top-level campaigns can use oppo.
In fact, non-profits and advocacy groups, many of whom plan to be more active while Trump is in the White House, stand to benefit if they take advantage of the services opposition researchers provide. Here are a few ways they can harness oppo:
Vetting, at its most basic level, is a background check. In opposition research, however, vetting goes far beyond what most “background check services” offer online. In addition to criminal and civil case histories, an opposition research vet will include a deep scouring of social media, web presence, property ownership, political donations and even voting history. Vetting jobs represent the statistical bulk of many opposition research portfolios, and any company concerned about the potential background of potential employees would be well served to consider hiring a professional researcher for vets. This is especially true for public facing employees.
Example: A non-profit is seeking to hire a number of individuals to help them perform outreach, fundraising and education. While nothing problematic stands out on their resumes the non-profit hires an opposition research firm to vet each potential hire. The research firm quickly discovers that several candidates are highly problematic: one has a social media account with potentially offensive content, one has multiple arrests for public intoxication and indecent exposure, and one has been sued in multiple states for skipping out on debts.
One of the more chilling stories to come out of the last few cycles has been the infiltration of “sting” operations into non-profits and advocacy groups. We’ve seen plenty of examples of groups like James O’Keefe’s Project Veritas send undercover operatives into organizations and then record conversations, often selectively editing them in such a way to damage the organization. Much like vetting, an opposition researcher can examine outside groups in such a way as to minimize this risk. Moreover, a researcher is able to examine the public record regarding a client and inform them about potential areas of vulnerability.
Example: A local women’s health group has recently received a number of questionable requests, phone calls, and invitations to meet with an organization that they are unfamiliar with. Something doesn’t seem right but a quick Google search doesn’t turn up any information. They contract with an opposition researcher to look into the situation, and the researcher utilizes public records to discover that the individuals seeking to contact the group are likely using fake names, and that the other organization doesn’t actually exist. The researcher is able to warn his client, and a potential PR crisis is avoided.
Government Bids And Grants
Many non-profits and organizations hire opposition researchers when they’re preparing for, or in the process of, bidding on a government project or pursuing a government grant. Researchers can help by digging into the public record to identify issues that may hurt their client’s chances at landing the bid and thereby preparing them to combat those issues. They may also look into the public record and examine competing groups for anything problematic, including conflicts of interest, poor records and outcomes, lawsuits, or negative press coverage.
Example: A non-profit hires a researcher to help support their bid to provide outreach and education services to the county. The researcher researches the competing bidder and discovers that their founder is one of the largest contributors to the county executive, that they have a poor financial history, paying large salaries and spending only a small percentage of their proceeds on actual outreach, and discovers several lawsuits claiming misappropriation and mismanagement within the organization. Armed with this information, the client successfully makes the case to the county that their competitor would be too much of a liability, and wins the contract.
Typical clients who stand to benefit from hiring an opposition research firm or consultant include those companies or non-profits who: Are heavily covered in the media, or are involved in competitive bidding. They have questions about potential employees or competitors, or have been weathering a difficult public relations storm.
In each of these situations, an opposition researcher can provide a client the tools and information they need to make better strategic decisions, avoid liabilities, and gain a significant advantage.
Michael Cantor is the founder and Managing Partner of WayForward Research, a full service corporate and political opposition research firm based in New England and Chicago, and the former deputy research director at American Bridge 21st Century.