After a couple of decades on the road managing political campaigns from New York to California and Maine to Florida, Terry Holt says he'll stay put in the DC area from now on.
But that doesn't mean Holt Strategies, the PR consulting firm he started earlier this year and runs from his Alexandria, VA, home, doesn't deal in politics. A number of clients, including the labor-group-funded Wal-Mart Watch (WMW) and, more recently, Internet service provider Earthlink, no doubt are signing on because the former campaign spokesman for Bush-Cheney 2004 knows his way around DC.
How can WMW reach out to Republican lawmakers and public policy groups, as well as the national media, with its message promoting workers' rights? How can Earthlink influence public or legislative support for such concepts as "net neutrality," which would guarantee that broadband providers offer equal access to all Web sites? Holt and other DC insiders like him say they can help.
Of course, he's biased, but Holt argues that being a small shop is not necessarily a disadvantage in Washington, unlike, perhaps, New York or Chicago. He explains that providing communications support for lobbyists or public policy experts doesn't require an army of junior associates or a fancy office.
"In DC, there are half-dozen of us who have started firms in the past three years who've come to the conclusion that communications support for legislation and public policy debates is different from traditional clients in terms of branding or marketing," he says.
For one thing, the money can be a lot less than corporate PR. Public affairs jobs might bring in $10,000 or $15,000 - not an especially big amount of money for a large PR firm, but a figure that can make a huge difference in a campaign geared toward a very small number of Washington influentials. For such work, clients want sophisticated advice, but what they can pay for won't support the kind of staff large shops maintain.
"Big firms [deal with] so many clients," Holt says. "As a smaller firm, I think we can provide laser focus. When agencies make their pitches to clients, you always hear, 'Am I getting you?' I can say yes."
The ties between PR and political campaigns are obvious, and Holt is just one of many politicos who move in and out of the PR world, either joining established agencies or setting up their own. And while political strategists generally say they remain committed to their chosen parties, their work does not necessarily exclude partnering with the other side.
To handle larger jobs, for example, Holt recently partnered with ex-Bush administration spokesman Trent Duffy, who now runs Trent Duffy Public Relations Strategies. He has also worked on projects with the Glover Park Group, whose partners include former Bill Clinton spokesman Joe Lockhart and Democratic campaign strategist Carter Eskew.
But never mind that. Does Holt think Democrats have a chance to take back control of Congress in the upcoming mid-term elections? "Well, maybe," is his answer. Holt helped craft the strategy and tactics behind the GOP takeover of Congress in 1994 and says Republicans today won't likely be as passive as the Democrats were back then. Plus, gerrymandering of Congressional districts has left far fewer seats in serious contention this year.
While Holt says he doesn't plan to go back to campaigning, in large part so he can watch his toddler son grow up, he has some good stories to tell. He recalls the time he gave a TV interview in Florida during the 2004 election recount and was nearly attacked by an alligator. Another story tells of a GOP primary in Maine when The Boston Globe uncovered his client's unsavory past in Alabama.
"I'll have to use some of this stuff for whenever I get around to writing that book," he says.
Founder, Holt Strategies
Director, Quinn Gillespie & Associates
National spokesman, Bush re-election campaign
SVP and director of public affairs at the Dutko Group