Dec 17, 2012

Come in Spinner: life in the political advisor wilderness

What do political advisers do when their team loses and can no longer work for the government? Usually they head off to a lobby group or law firm to bide their time.

Noel Turnbull

Adjunct professor of media and communications at RMIT University.

In the US, some advisors who served in the first Obama term have already moved, or are planning to move, onto K Street for a rest and a chance to earn some serious money. Lots of Republican wannabe advisors are wondering what eight years in the wilderness will do to their careers after missing out on the jobs they expected to flow from a Romney victory. Meanwhile, in Australia some ALP advisors are making the move out before the election and some opposition hopefuls (including some who have already scored jobs in state and territory coalition governments) are busy manoeuvring for new ones if the opposition wins the next federal election. Not so noticeable has been a quiet debate among some Australian corporate communications people about what company executives (especially corporate communicators with political connections) do outside office hours which might reflect on their employer. The US situation has lots of well-established precedents although growing partisanship has changed things a lot. Generally advisors (and officials) went off to a lobby group, law firm (often the same thing as lobbying firms), think tanks, interest groups, NGOs and even to journalism once their lot lost power. This could be hard for those in the cold for eight long two-term presidential years and hard for Democrats during the George W. Bush years when the Republicans tried to purge Democrats from K Street. A former colleague epitomised the situation. After service in Vietnam, and having a range of advisor and official positions under Reagan and Bush Senior, the Clinton years found him biding his time in a consulting firm. He was always a little vague about what he did in the Republican years but it seemed to have something to do with the Defence Department, arms sales and relations with some unsavoury types who were very loyal US allies. Once he took me to dinner at a Buenos Aires officers' club complete with rainforest-sourced wood lining and dotted with grim portraits of military types who looked as if they might have specialised in murdering indigenous Americans and leftists after training at the School of the Americas in Panama or Fort Benning. The diners on the night -- male and female -- all seemed to look awfully like the portraits. He was again vague about how he got entry but muttered something about reciprocal rights. Anyway, his Clinton exile ended and he went back to work in the next Bush administration only to find himself back in consulting after 2008. His situation (if not his exact jobs) are replicated time and time again. In Australia the think tank and lobbying firm options are more limited. After all, the total spent on lobbying in Washington (in 2012 there were 12,000 lobbyists and the total lobbying spend was US$2.45 billion, according to OpenSecrets, the centre for responsive politics) is far more than the total staff numbers and spend of all PR, lobbying and corporate communications in Australia. On top of that $2.45 billion in 2012, there was the spending through Political Action Committees, the US Chamber of Commerce and others. Then there were the collective campaigns by operators such as Karl Rove who aggregated hundreds of millions from various donors to campaign to defeat Obama and get Republicans elected to Congress. On election night the amusement at Rove's hysterical reaction to the Fox News Ohio results' call was tempered by the hope, for his sake, that none of the donors to his Supreme Court enabled campaign had secret connections to the sort of people who left horse's heads in beds. Nevertheless, even on a smaller scale the Australian options for former advisors resemble those in the US. For example, the highly respected Peter Poggioli went from state Liberal Party director to Howard government advisor to pharmaceutical company executive to Victorian government advisor and there are many other similar examples of people moving from politics to a wide range of other areas including universities, industry associations, lobbying forms and corporations and then back again. However, things get interesting when people combine the bench job in corporate communications with ongoing political involvement -- such as Simon Berger (former Woolworths and Howard era advisor who got caught up with the Alan Jones affair) did when he donated a jacket made from a chaff bag to the function at which Jones' spoke. Tony Jaques wrote about the Berger situation in his online issues and crisis management newsletter Managing Outcomes but was surprised by the subsequent reaction which introduced a new dimension to the issue altogether. Jaques said: "My analysis of the Woolworths' response (or non-response) provoked a number of emails from my subscribers including a very long one from a corporate communicator who said I had asked the right question (whether the Woolworths' response was appropriate) but missed out on a very important one -- which is, what is the responsibility of a company executive (especially a professional communicator) when it comes to doing or saying things outside office hours. Since then the issue has bubbled along a bit more online and in various informal discussions among PR people. Some of the comments made include: obviously even PR people have political rights and ought to be able to get involved in political campaigns; and, equally obviously some corporate communication jobs are intensely political (remember the mining tax campaign?). Other PRs are obviously bipartisan as big companies build close relationships with all parties and often employ people from various political backgrounds. But so far no one has come up with any firm answers -- other than the traditional ones: good PR people are seen as little as possible and they are, above all else, discreet.

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