Thousands of political appointees in the Obama administration will be out of a job on January 20, when Republican President-elect Donald Trump will be sworn in as the 45th president of the United States.
Public affairs pros say the private sector will be able to cherry pick from a flooded talent pool in Washington, DC, not just from the outgoing Democratic administration, but also campaign staffers from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s unsuccessful presidential bid.
"We’ve built our whole model on hiring people with campaign experience," notes former Obama press strategist Ben LaBolt, cofounder and president of The Incite Agency and a partner at Bully Pulpit Interactive. "They know how to work nimbly in the public limelight with a lot of scrutiny and in times of crisis. And they know how to scale up quickly within an organization."
It won’t just be PR firms on the hunt.
Agency leaders expect major corporations from outside Washington to scoop up top prospects, particularly in Silicon Valley, where the tech sector is rattled by the incoming Trump administration.
Some tech giants already have former DC heavy hitters on their payrolls. In 2015, Amazon hired Jay Carney, former White House press secretary for Obama, to lead its then-newly created global corporate affairs department. Last summer, Airbnb booked Bill Clinton’s former political adviser Chris Lehane to head up public policy and comms. A year earlier, Uber brought on former Obama for America campaign manager and senior adviser to the president David Plouffe.
"Corporate headhunters are looking for good people from this world for the tech sector; it is a trendy place for them right now," says Nedra Pickler, MD of Glover Park Group, which was founded in 2001 by former staffers of President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore. "Based on the conversations I’ve had with people coming out of politics, it is still very much a big draw."
Who would be the biggest "gets" for PR firms and corporations? According to multiple sources, the list includes White House press secretary Josh Earnest, principal deputy press secretary Eric Schultz, and communications director Jen Psaki.
"They would be my top targets for senior positions," says one agency head, who asked to remain anonymous. "These individuals are not only very well known and have their own personal brands, but they also have very strong reputations and extensive experience beyond just this White House."
Hillary Clinton campaigned with a large team of communications operatives and digital strategists who could also command plum offers. Insiders point to campaign communications director and Obama White House veteran Jennifer Palmieri; communications adviser and director of rapid response Christina Reynolds, and strategic communications adviser and senior spokesperson Karen Finney, who was also Clinton’s deputy press secretary when she was first lady.
Given that Republicans have wrestled control of both houses of Congress and the White House from the Democrats, private-sector organizations will hire Democratic campaign veterans for their experience and expertise in the changing communications landscape, rather than partisan affiliations.
"Before the outcome, agencies might have had the mindset that ‘Oh, we can’t wait to get all these folks from the Obama administration because they’ll understand how the Clintons work,’" notes Lisa Osborne Ross, MD of the Washington, DC, office of APCO Worldwide and a former senior Clinton administration official. "But we never ascribed to that."
She adds, "What is really attractive about campaign people is their ability to focus on something exclusively and intensely for a short period of time, because agency work is becoming increasingly contracted and project-based."
To fill six open positions, Ross says her office is seeking staffers with an ability to work both sides of the aisle.
"What we learned about this election more than anything is that we are divided because we’re incapable or unwilling to see how other people feel about a particular issue," she explains. "We want people who can see issues from all sides, who bring a diversity of ideology and aren’t so strident in their positions. That is how we’ll provide the best and most comprehensive counsel to our clients."
Not just Democrats seeking jobs
Trump’s transition team is racing to fill about 4,100 executive-branch positions, and many of those will likely go to campaign aides. Speculation abounds about who will be named to the press secretary and communications director roles. Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, Republican National Committee chief strategist Sean Spicer, speechwriter and key aide Stephen Miller, and campaign spokesman Jason Miller are reportedly in the mix for White House communications jobs.
And Democrats won’t be the only ones looking for new jobs.
Trump insisted on the campaign trail that he would "drain the swamp" in Washington of the political establishment and lobbyists. Experts believe some Republican aides will refuse job offers in the Trump administration, fearful of the uncertainty of his presidency or having their future ambitions tainted by it.
"So you not only have people leaving the Obama administration, but people on the Republican side who would normally be looking to go inside the administration sharing their resumes and pounding the pavement," says Gene Grabowski, partner at kglobal. "Agencies, consulting firms, lobby groups—they have the advantage, because there is an excess of talent looking for work in the private sector."
"Agencies can be more selective," he asserts.
Others will decide to hang their own shingle, a successful strategy for political power players such as Stephanie Cutter, Jen O’Malley Dillon, and Teddy Goff, who launched Precision Strategies after working for Obama’s 2012 campaign.
"The question I would ask is not necessarily who are the big firms going to grab, but who are the people that are going to come together in creating their own boutique firms," says Kris Balderston, president of global public affairs and strategic engagement at FleishmanHillard in Washington, D.C. "It’s quite conceivable that people coming off the campaign trail will aggregate together, either to support this administration or fight against this administration."