From Fundraising to Campaign Ads: The Ethics Considerations for Consultants

Originally Published on Campaigns and Elections

By Sean J. Miller

Last week’s deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol will reverberate in this country and within the campaign industry for years to come. To shed some light on the path forward, we’ve asked a large group of top practitioners from both parties what role consultants can play in making sure that path forward isn’t one that leads to increased political violence.  

Below are those who have responded to us thus far. As we receive additional responses this article will be updated. 

Steve Johnston, COO of FlexPoint Media:

“We’re witnessing a consequential debate over the cost of free speech and the rights and responsibilities of the politician, the platform, the press, and the public.

Where the industry goes next remains to be seen, but one thing is clear: words matter. Rhetoric is a weapon. It can protect or destroy, lead, or mislead.”

Isaac Salazar,  founding partner of LPS Campaigns: 

“We’re at a crossroads in how we talk to people through various communications channels. We have a responsibility as campaign professionals to be honest with supporters. There are several candidates and advocacy groups that have success because they are authentic, but too many only use ‘sky is falling’ tactics. 

This makes it difficult to cut through the noise in critical times like these. The proliferation of misinformation originated by Russia, stoked by Trump, and enabled by Tech companies is something we’ll all need to address — not just for the good of our industry, but for the future of our nation.”

Will Bunnett, principal, Clarify Agency:

“Every practitioner knows they should do the right thing and conduct their work ethically. But when you can point to how much money a dangerous fundraising tactic raised or how many voters a deceptive ad moved, and critics don’t have a metric to quantify how much damage that bad tactic did to the organization’s brand or society more broadly, it’s always going to be hard for the right thing to win out. 

We can’t just draw the line at whether a tactic incited an attack on the Capitol or not, so we need to identify metrics that can better help us understand broader harm.”

Kim Alfano, CEO, Alfano Communications: 

“Ads need to be emotional, but they don’t have to be incendiary. People can be passionate about issues because they truly affect their lives, but the cheap black and white, grainy video, scary music, puppet shows that take opposition research and turn it into horror movies, which are the norm today, should be a thing of the past. 

“They are lazy, cheap and easy to produce — designed to make the most money from the most clients in the shortest amount of time. Emotionally moving, thought-provoking advertising takes time to produce. That’s why you don’t see it very often. And frankly, candidates these days turn to ad makers for what the ads should contain rather than how they should be presented. 

“True leaders shouldn’t be expecting media consultants to devise policy positions. That should be coming from the candidates themselves, who ostensibly have positions or ideas that will make a difference and are running for office to pursue them. Media consultants should only be telling them how best to speak about those things and present them to their audience. Unfortunately, there aren’t many candidates like Mitch Daniels and Tom Cole out there anymore.”

John Padua, VP, Media Buying, Trilogy Interactive:

“As I watched the events at the Capitol unfold, flipping back and forth between cable news and social media, I couldn’t help but feel shock, anger, fear, and disappointment. It left me and my colleagues to ask, how did it get to this point?

There’s not one single trigger. Rather, years of lies, disinformation, algorithms, Twitter bullying, conspiracy theory, far-right organizing, and violent rhetoric came together to cause this riot at the Capitol. The events show that words have power and meaning, and when weaponized, they lead to disastrous consequences.

Our digital campaign industry must change. The current animus from the far-right — and their allies in the establishment Republican Party — must cool down. It would be best for the country, and the greater good for that matter, if the industry de-escalates these tensions. The prevention of further violence and death should be incentive enough for communications professionals, and the platforms we rely on, to reflect before penning and placing the next attack ad. Strategy and buying consultants need to re-evaluate how microtargeted messaging and media channels increase polarization and further cleave our communities. But that won’t happen unless people take responsibility for their role in this fiasco.”

Eric Wilson, Founder of Startup Caucus, via Twitter: 

“Plenty of blame to go around for what happened at the Capitol this week and we’ll be dealing with the situation for decades, but I’ve been mulling over the role of algorithms & AI in the attack.

Individuals are ultimately responsible for their own words & actions. … Algorithms (often AI-optimized) drive digital media distribution and advertising with limited human intervention. 

This has created a complex, closed system where financial incentives (free attention + ad revenue) align for those in politics and media to optimize for outrage. … According to Facebook data, 64% of users who join an extremist Facebook Group do so at the platform’s recommendation. 

Unwittingly, thousands (millions?) of individuals are now wrapped up in a conspiracy theory distributed algorithmically on social media …

This led to a clear business case for media figures and outlets to generate more content to reinforce false beliefs. And many eagerly obliged … Politicians, for the most part, simply reflect back what they think their supporters want to hear. As @SpeakerBoehner  always says, a leader without any followers is just a guy taking a walk.

In other words, elected officials are responding to the demand generated by algorithms.”

Patrick O’Keefe, director of customer success, Anedot:

“Unfortunately over the past couple of years, it has seemingly been a race to use more and more aggressive rhetoric in fundraising emails. While some tactics work, they become an addiction. When a 500% match becomes normal, you have to go higher and higher for it to be ‘special.’ I’m not sure the industry will change immediately, but some should consider utilizing more effective organizing tactics instead of churn and burn language that can have real-world consequences.”

Laura Packard, partner, PowerThru Consulting: 

“1) Don’t work for candidates or elected officials that try to violently overthrow the government. 2) Don’t lie in the work you do. The rhetoric of the last few years directly led to thousands of Americans arming themselves and heading to the Capitol to perform an insurrection. It’s tempting to go unethical and push all the buttons to raise money through email etc., but words have consequences.”

Cheryl Hori, founder, Pacific Campaign House:

“It’s tricky because we know, some of us all too well, that following a catastrophic event, online donors tend to be more engaged and turn to political leaders and nonprofit organizations for solutions. In some scenarios — especially when the issue area is relevant to the work of that candidate or organization — fundraising is not only appropriate but important.

But last week we saw the impact of online extremism go far beyond just raising money. Both Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley sent fundraising emails either right before or during Wednesday’s terrorist attack on the Capitol to raise money off their ongoing election lies that ultimately incited the riot.

More than before, consultants are in the position of weighing the pros and cons of providing ways for supporters to get involved and feel engaged. But the decision to fundraise is not always the best avenue: The risk includes potentially alienating the client’s email list/reputation and spreading extreme rhetoric that could very well have serious offline repercussions.

At the end of the day, there will always be consultants who are willing to blow past the moral/ethical limits, but the responsibility ultimately lies with the client: Is their priority raising the most money or running a morally ethical campaign?”

Candice Dayoan, VP of Creative, 50+1 Strategies: 

“I’m really angry and upset. In this world, you meet and work with lots of people who either become elected officials or work in their offices. It’s coming out that we were mere minutes away from the insurgents coming in contact directly with the elected officials, and other reports of them attacking journalists and other staffers. These are people who we’ve all worked with, or met at a happy hour, people we’re connected to in one way or another. It’s already terrible what happened, and it could have been much worse. The people who incited this violence need to be held responsible.”

Brian Young, digital director, SpeakEasy Political:

“I think we see a lot of campaigns, particularly on right, using reductio ad absurdum  in their advertising. My favorite so far is comedian Corey Forrester ranting  about a mailer that claims the Green New Deal will “ban hamburgers” in [Georgia]. Hamburgers will never be banned, but repeating that level of absurdity, and then repeating that message over and over leads folks to believe everything they love is in jeopardy. 

Advertising, especially political advertising, needs to make claims that are only based in reality. The problem for my Republican counterparts is that that ‘Reality has a well know liberal bias’  so, at this time, they feel all they have is reductio ad absurdum. 

The insurrectionists that stormed the capitol live a world that is absurd, a world reinforced by advertising, memes, and alt-right yellow journalism.

It’s time for advertisers to hold themselves accountable for the media they create, and the absurd messages they spread.”

Thomas Peters, founder & CEO, RumbleUp: 

“Both Democrats and Republicans have been significantly ratcheting up their rhetoric for as long as I’ve been involved in politics (12 years). Unfortunately, extremism sells. But it has clearly gone too far. 

The future belongs to operators and elected officials who can inspire people to creative, meaningful, lawful civic engagement without relying on exaggerations, distortions, and recriminations. I think self-policing platforms (like email and text vendors) have a responsibility to work with their clients to get the same point across to their audience (give money, vote, etc.) without raising the temperature 10X every time. It’s not going to be easy but we’re seeing the alternative and it’s destroying the bonds that should unite us as Americans.”

Ashlee Stephenson, national political director, U.S. Chamber of Commerce:

“There has been a swift and immediate backlash from the business community in response to action and rhetoric perceived to threaten democracy or the peaceful transition of power. From compelling statements released by business and industry groups, to many companies even committing to withhold corporate PAC contributions as a result of recent events, these examples underscore the gravity of the moment.

One of the core goals of the tactics employed by political practitioners is to raise money for their campaign clients. Any threat to the ability to secure the resources to be successful will undoubtedly be taken into serious consideration. It’s for this reason alone I think we can expect to see posturing from both sides of the aisle … whether it’s going on offense to permanently tie elected officials to their actions, or attempts to defend decision making. Elected officials and candidates will be asked by voters and the press to explain their own position on the certification of the 2020 Electoral College results.

It is my hope that consultants will take into consideration the statement released by the American Association of Political Consultants last week and this key line from C&E as campaigns develop their own messaging moving ahead: ‘For political consultants, this week should elevate how critical considerations around the rhetoric and tactics employed by campaigns and organizations are. It’s far from a new conversation, but it’s one that will take on new gravity.’”