Even in a tough economy, finding good PR talent is difficult. So it's no surprise that PR agencies are licking their chops in anticipation of Election Day, when big-name presidential campaigners and burned-out 30- and 40-something political operatives decide they're ready to move into a more stable, slower sector.
This talent grab is part of a four-year cycle, one that tends to pit PR shops against consultancies and lobbying firms, among other entities, as they look to hire digital operatives and campaign managers.
"We have been hiring people who come from government and campaigns for 25 years," said Michael Kempner, CEO of PR agency MWW and an active Obama supporter. "There's no better training than a campaign. They're working under pressure, unforgiving deadlines, speaking to diverse audiences and seeing the media impact with real consequences in every program they execute."
One of many elements that make campaign talent so desirable to PR groups is the level of exposure to national and regional reporters, as well as to the inner workings of digital companies including Twitter, Facebook and Google, noted one campaign executive, who wished to remain anonymous. "These are relationships you wouldn't have as an account executive at a larger firm."
Martha Boudreau, who leads Omnicom PR shop Fleishman-Hillard's D.C. office as regional president for Mid-Atlantic and Latin America, explained that about 40% of her Washington staff has campaign experience. "They're at a central point of intersection between the business and politics and policy. That's the sweet spot for us," she said.
Four years ago, her firm, among others, sought and hired executives from Obama's coveted social-media team. This year, the firm's need to fill two roles -- global head of public affairs and D.C. general manager -- coincides with the election.
This election cycle, executives in research and data and analytics will likely be the hot commodity, as shops seek employees who know how to sift through the volumes of consumer information that campaigns now gather.
"Four years ago, there was a leap forward in the ability to get people like me to communicate to people like me with social in a significant way, and we had the resources to fund it," said Steve Schmidt, Edelman vice chairman of public affairs, MSNBC political analyst and former campaigner. "This next evolution is the data and analytics, the ability to target messages."
"The tools have not changed dramatically in the last four years, but the use of data has," agreed Dave Senay, CEO of Fleishman-Hillard. "The footprints we leave in our lives just by use of social and purchase patterns ... all paint a cyber-profile of ourselves. The politicians and parties tap into what makes you tick to get the key swing vote."
So why would D.C. power hounds leave the campaign circuit or a government job to join a PR agency in the consumer sector? After working on various campaigns, including Arnold Schwarzenegger's gubernatorial bid and George W. Bush's presidential re-election, Mr. Schmidt took the plunge when he joined Mercury Public Affairs in 2007.
But he didn't completely give up politics. Since 2007, he has supported various campaigns, including Sen. John McCain's 2008 presidential bid. A little over a year later, he joined Edelman. "For anyone who works in politics when they're in their early 30s, these jobs are high risk, in that they have a definitive expiration date," he said. "Almost every person I've ever known, after doing three [presidential campaigns], says I can't do this anymore."
But not all burned-out execs will make the move, unless it comes with a degree of the control they enjoyed on the fast-paced campaign trail. Large corporate environments and the lack of freedom or flexibility associated with them create a roadblock for recruiters.
"Those who leave to work in PR exclusively probably weren't the best campaign people to start," said one campaign executive. He continued: "Our social-media director [on this campaign] has leeway to do whatever [he or she] wants. That would not occur at a massive firm layered with bureaucracy."
For this reason, rather than join a corporate entity, many former staffers set out on their own.
In 2008, Andrew Bleeker founded Bully Pulpit Interactive while working as director of internet advertising for Obama for America. He now serves as global digital practice director of WPP PR giant Hill & Knowlton Strategies. According to its website, Blue State Digital was the brainchild of four Howard Dean campaigners "who were frustrated by the strategic and technological shortcomings of the campaign." And Zac Moffatt, Romney 2012 digital director, and Michael Beach, former national victory director for the RNC, co-founded Targeted Victory in 2009.
Some firms forgo the full-time contracts. Independent D.C. PR shop APCO is known for its tendency to leverage senior-level political talent on a project basis, under terms of exclusivity. "[This talent] knows how to run things, organize change, execute against strategy and manage other people," said Margery Kraus, founder and CEO of APCO.
Omnicom's Ketchum is another shop on the hunt this year, though it doesn't have specific roles in mind as it looks at the campaigns. Nick Ragone, director of Ketchum's D.C. office and a political commentator on Fox, said that he has already received about a dozen resumes from mid- and junior-level staffers.