Published on September 18, 2023, at 4:30p.m.
by Ginger Morrow.
The nebulous world of consulting may seem daunting for the politically inclined communications professional, but really, public relations skills are in high demand. It’s no wonder that firms that strive to elect political candidates and maintain their reputations need talented writers, copy editors, media relations specialists and branding experts to make it all possible. There are many paths to ascension in the political consulting field, but PR professionals can have a leg-up in the industry if they know what employers are looking for.
What is political consulting?
Josh Thomas is the president of Parthenon Strategies, a Tennessee political consulting firm.
“At its heart, we work with candidates to get them elected,” Thomas said. He said that his services come in many forms, such as messaging, direct mail, digital marketing, TV and media placements, polling, and field operations.
Thomas said he was always interested in politics, but he only decided to pursue political work professionally after he interned for a former U.S. senator. He moved into the campaign world early in his political career and started his firm after working in multiple political races and as a caucus director. He started Parthenon Strategies six years ago.
Dalton Dismukes is the president of Strategy Management LLC, an Alabama consulting firm.
“Every single day is different, especially during [legislative] session,” he said. “I spend the [session] day checking [my clients’] social media, reading comments, helping them respond, putting out fires.”
Dismukes said he got into campaign work in a 2010 state senate race. He worked on campaigns through college and started Strategy Management out of his apartment seven years ago. He now employs seven people.
Both Thomas and Dismukes agreed that the variety of tasks they tackle each day keeps the work exciting.
What is the client-facing work of a consultant?
Thomas said his first priority when meeting with a potential new client is understanding the brand he must create for them as a candidate.
“We look at the makeup of the race and what ‘lane’ that person may run in. There’s the business person. There’s the grassroots person. There is the progressive, the conservative, the pro-life person — and all have different audiences that they are going to appeal to,” Thomas said.
Thomas expressed that it is important to create a brand that is both appealing to voters and authentic.
“Fake candidates don’t work,” he explained.
Dismukes said his biggest question for a new client is “What energized you to run?”
“It tells you everything you need to know. If you can’t answer it, that’s a red flag,” he said.
Thomas agreed wholeheartedly. “If they can’t say why they’re running, they probably shouldn’t be running,” he said. He expressed that this question is the most frequently asked on the campaign trail and is necessary to establish a brand for a client in their first days on the trail.
Thomas and Dismukes said their early priorities after accepting a new client are conducting research, drafting timelines and creating a budget.
Where does the PR come in?
Creating a strong brand and shielding a person or organization from a crisis are two critical functions of a public relations professional. Those functions are also critical to an aspiring politician’s success.
Dismukes and Thomas agreed that PR is the essence of their work.
“PR is super important to this. It’s more important than people realize,” Dismukes said. He noted that around 80% of his time is spent on public relations functions.
“Messaging is everything in a campaign,” Thomas said. “It is the first thing you do in a campaign. It’s something you will work on for the entire campaign on a daily, weekly basis, and it’s how you win. You’re always tweaking what are the core aspects of your candidate that you want to communicate.”
Thomas said the need for a good communication strategist does not end when a candidate’s brand is established.
“As you go through the election, you have this town hall, or this forum, or this community group, and you begin to tweak [the messaging] for each audience,” he said.
He added that even with the many minor adjustments needed to persuade segmented audiences, it’s crucial to maintain clarity and an overall image that is consistent from beginning to end.
What are consulting firms looking for?
Thomas and Dismukes both got into consulting by working on campaigns. They said that the campaign route is the most direct way to gain experience that can lead to starting a firm or having a résumé that can lead to landing a job at one.
There are opportunities to specialize in certain types of messaging and PR work within the political consulting field. Thomas said he works with other consultants who specialize in direct mail, text messaging, phone messaging, digital advertising and field organization.
Dismukes said Strategy Management looks to hire candidates who are “jacks of all trades” and “masters of one.”
“We want everyone to have baseline skills and an understanding of how a campaign comes together,” he explained, “but not everyone can be a great graphic designer, copy editor or speechwriter.” He said that firms love hiring individuals with the specializations they are missing.
Dismukes also said that the most important quality he looks for in a potential hire is creative instinct.
“I can train anyone to write, but I can’t train someone to be an innovative problem-solver,” he said.
Thomas agreed that a great consultant must have a “strategic mind.”
“It’s important to be someone who can take these few pillars a candidate is running on and make them, in a speech, something that a community group will care about,” he said.
Thomas said a new hire at Parthenon Strategies must be proficient at both the prose, speechwriting end of the writing spectrum, as well as the straight, press release end. He said AP style is a skill he looks for.
Thomas added that listening skills and “hustle” are also important to success in the political field.
Campaigns are always looking for help, so Dismukes and Thomas encourage aspiring consultants and political communications professionals to build their résumés by volunteering in races on the local level.
“Start where everyone else started, on the ground, grinding it out in campaigns,” Thomas said. “Politics is a business where if you have just a little bit of talent, but a whole lot of hustle and a lot of hard work, you can really go anywhere you want to go.”