In Digital Space, Carly Fiorina Could Be a Political Risk Taker

Digital Team Had Just Three Weeks to Plan Campaign Launch

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In 2010 When Carly Fiorina ran in the GOP Senate primary in an unsuccessful bid to unseat California Senator Barbara Boxer, her campaign's odd YouTube video deemed "Demon Sheep" garnered a lot of attention outside of the Golden State. Media reports called it "bizarre" and a work of "internet genius."

Whether the former HP CEO will show the same inclination towards political risk-taking now that she's officially launched her campaign for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination remains to be seen. But initial signs indicate she is willing to steer away from the traditional. Her campaign's use of the Periscope live video platform to host a townhall-style Q&A is one example. (The failure to lock down CarlyFiorina.org, however, was not.)

Another sign of departure? The Carly Fiorina for President campaign plans to use its digital consultancy's own data strategy team of two and a CRM platform from Washington, D.C.-based startup CrowdSkout for managing communications with supporters rather than looking to separate data-analytics and management vendors.

"We are going to do a lot of that type of data work in-house and in-partnership with CrowdSkout," said Ron Steslow, president at small digital political consulting outfit Tusk Digital and acting digital director for the Fiorina campaign. CrowdSkout, a non-partisan tech firm, was once located in the same Chinatown building in D.C. as Tusk, said Mr. Steslow, who declined to provide details on how the companies will work together for the campaign. "That's a little bit too into the strategic weeds," he said.

Mr. Steslow added that the campaign hasn't ruled out working with well-established GOP data firms Data Trust and i360, but he anticipates much of the data work to be handled by Tusk's data-analytics strategists.

"At the high level our M.O. is to come into a campaign…and sort of embed ourselves as their native digital director," said Mr. Steslow.

In a GOP presidential field only bound to become more cluttered with candidates, the Fiorina campaign has an uphill battle ahead as it strives to attract support and donations amid constant fundraising efforts by opponents. According to RealClearPolitics, Ms.Fiorina is polling at the bottom of a roster of 13 other declared and potential Republican presidential candidates.

The digital operation for all modern campaigns is becoming the main hub for data and communications efforts, but the Fiorina campaign's started from a challenged position. The digital campaign originated only around three weeks ago after the Fiorina camp chose the firm.

"It's been a sprint," said Mr. Steslow, who has been in politics for around 10 years and ran digital in 2010 for Republican Linda McMahon, another female business executive with political aspirations. The short lead time did not deter the Fiorina campaign from trying something new in live Twitter video platform Periscope, which is virtually untested in the political arena.

"I think we're trying to involve supporters and potential supporters as much as possible in a really easy-to-do way," said Anna Epstein, press secretary for the Fiorina camp. Periscope, she added, "is a great way for her to virtually reach a lot of people at once."

The Periscope event peaked at around 550 viewers, according to Mr. Steslow, adding, "We're not going to try every single new tool that comes out just because it's cool."

Super PAC Carly for America has been raising cash to help support Ms. Fiorina, though the organization, not affiliated with the campaign, only got its start in February. Republican opponents including Rand Paul and the yet-to-announce Jeb Bush also have recently-formed committees backing them with unlimited donation cash. No one on the right can match the much-longer-term efforts of Ready for Hillary, the group that launched in January 2013 to help Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton with an army of supporters and grassroots infrastructure in early primary states Iowa and New Hampshire.

Ms. Fiorina is also up against criticism of her management at HP. "Carly Fiorina has an interesting story," said GOP consultant Peter Pasi. "She's a cancer survivor and has significant private sector experience. But her rivals will try to hang all of HP's troubles on her."

Those troubles attracted more attention after Monday's campaign launch when media outlets reported that CarlyFiorina.org in effect serves as an attack site, highlighting layoffs she approved while heading the HP. The .org domain "wasn't available to purchase," said Mr. Steslow.

"At the end of the day you can't buy the whole Internet," he said.

As for the campaign's video approach, it may be more traditional than the candidate's Demon Sheep ad of 2010, which attacked Ms. Fiorina's Senate primary rival Tom Campbell as an "FCINO," or Fiscal Conservative in Name Only, and took the "wolf in sheep's clothing" metaphor to an almost-surreal extreme. It is unclear if Fred Davis, who created that video, will be involved this time around.

In her more classically styled video launching her presidential campaign, Ms. Fiorina looks directly into the camera and declares, "Our founders never intended us to have a professional political class."

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