How the Clinton Foundation got ready for an election-year fight

The group reorganized its communications structure and prepared its rapid-response capabilities in preparation for a contentious campaign - yet it received more criticism than it bargained for.

(Image via the Clinton Foundation's Facebook page).
(Image via the Clinton Foundation's Facebook page).

Knowing the presidential election would make 2016 a year like none in its history, the Clinton Global Initiative girded for the race with a complete reorganization of its communications team. The group also partnered with a wide range of media platforms to target new audiences and provide more comms support to members and allies.

"Global development and good news is always a tough sell, but an election year does make it more difficult," says Craig Minassian, chief communications officer for the CGI. "It becomes more about conflict and contention rather than cooperation and solutions."

The Clinton Global Initiative, timed to coincide with the U.N. General Assembly so it can secure an audience of world leaders, will convene for its three-day meeting on Monday. This year’s speakers include actor and filmmaker Ben Affleck, Sony CEO Kazuo Hirai, President Bill Clinton, and his daughter, Chelsea Clinton.

However the run-up to the 12th annual gathering has been filled with controversy. Donations to the Clinton Foundation have come under intense media and third-party speculation over the past few months. The IRS has confirmed it is looking into allegations of impropriety at the foundation, which has staged the annual confab since 2005, four years after President Clinton created the eponymous group after he left office. Critics have accused the organization of accepting donations from questionable parties and nations, in particular Middle Eastern governments, as part of a pay-for-play scheme while Hillary Clinton was secretary of state.

Others say that the group should be dissolved if Clinton wins the election to eliminate any potential conflicts of interest. Bill Clinton has said the group will stop accepting donations from foreign or corporate entities if she becomes the 45th president of the United States.

Republican nominee Donald Trump and his supporters are using the claims as ammunition to frame Clinton as a distrustful political insider who considers herself above the law.

"From the foreign contributions while Hillary was secretary of state to the enrichment of the Clinton family, there are questions posed that make excellent fodder for political foes," says Dan Rene, SVP at Levick. "The Clinton Foundation deserves the intense scrutiny to which it has been subjected."

Yet he adds that the organization should have the antidote for these attacks.

"The good news for the Clinton Foundation is that it has – or at least should have – real results of its work," adds Rene. "If they focus the message on their results, they will win the debate. You cannot argue with someone giving credit to someone for saving their life. If you try, you will lose."

Although the organization did not specifically anticipate these attacks, Minassian says it did prepare for potential mud-slinging and false accusations. In one operational change going into this election cycle, the foundation moved its digital unit to communications from marketing to boost its digital content and improve rapid response. The foundation also folded another department into comms, a move that expanded its ability to write op-eds, blog posts, and create talking points for surrogates.

"We’ve done a complete reorganization of our internal comms operation knowing what we’d be facing," Minassian explains. "But we also see this year as an opportunity, because with the spotlight on us, we can talk about the positive work we’ve done."

Over the past month, engagement with the Clinton Foundation Facebook page has increased by 172% on a month-to-month basis and impressions were up 284%. On Twitter, engagement was up 90% and impressions jumped 30%, respectively. Given the heightened scrutiny, the foundation is using its social media accounts to push out content focused on top-line impact statistics and positive coverage of its work.

The foundation has also transferred its charitable model – forging partnerships among businesses, NGOs, individual philanthropists, and governments to the world’s most pressing social and environmental problems – to its communications strategy.

"A few years ago, we started to move from simply pitching stories to media to creating partnerships with media organizations, everyone from CNN and Bloomberg to Snapchat and LinkedIn," Minassian says. "We started to look at ourselves as a content platform. And so we began looking for partners that cover the same issues as we do and have a need for content."

The Foundation’s established new partnerships with Condé Nast Traveller, WNYC’s podcasts, Refinery29, and

"So many of our issue areas are important to very specific audiences like Refinery29 with women’s issue," says Minassian. "And so we’ve found a lot of value in partnering with organizations like them on content that isn’t viewed or consumed from a political prism."

The CGI also hired former Time Warner executive Dan Osheyack as chief marketing officer earlier this year, with the mandate of finding new ways to tell the foundation’s stories. On the media-relations front, APCO Worldwide continues to support the CGI by matching commitment-makers with reporters.

A need for even more transparency
Many of the public affairs and CSR experts who spoke with PRWeek applaud the foundation’s efforts to counter negative media coverage. However, they say its next moves will depend on how the annual general meeting is perceived. Others say it has not released enough information to silence critics who accuse it of backroom favoritism.

In a contentious interview with CBS News’ Charlie Rose this week, President Clinton said, "There’s never been a foundation to disclose as much as I have. Then why don't people feel trust? Because of the way the disclosed information is selectively used [by my opponents]."

Watchdog group Charity Watch gives the group an "A" rating. Yet given Hillary Clinton’s low ratings on trust issues and public skepticism of her motives, some public affairs pros argue the foundation should release more information.

"Given their advice on transparency and dialogue being very good tools to address global issues, it would not be a bad decision for the organization to aim some of that advice at themselves," says Alan VanderMolen, president for WE Communications’ Asia-Pacific and EMEA operations.

"The CGI is one of the most critical convening platforms for world leaders, and it will be interesting to see how serious the blowback ends up," he adds. "Right now, they can discount about 50% [of the negative press] due to the election, but after the election they’ll have to evaluate how much this has hurt the organization and negatively impacted its purpose."

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