Does political campaign experience make you a better candidate for an agency job?

People involved in politics and communications for a political campaign will likely shine doing agency work in the private sector. Those involved only in making policy might not.


Jonathan Winer
SVP, APCO Worldwide, Washington, DC
Served as counsel to Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) and his Senate campaigns from 1983-1994, and as an advisor to his 2004 presidential campaign.

People involved in politics and communications for a political campaign will likely shine doing agency work in the private sector. Those involved only in making policy might not.

Communications and politi- cal specialists, grassroots organizers, and fundraisers all have transferable skills that can apply to figuring out not only the messages best delivered for a client, but who best to target and through what channels.

In contrast, would-be policy- makers might know what they want to get done, but could be insensitive to the mechanics of getting others to agree with them.

So between a person who has been important and one who knows how to make things im-portant, I'd often pick the latter.

Here's what I'd look for in a person coming off a campaign:

  • Does the person have media contacts? Are they networked throughout DC? Even beyond?
  • Does the person grasp what those contacts care about and what they will and won't touch?
  • Does the person understand macro-constituencies? Micro-constituencies? How to frame an issue so it will activate people who can make a difference and not unduly infuriate those who will try to get in the way - unless angering them is part of the plan?
  • Is the person a strategic thinker? A tactical thinker? Is he or she capable of working as part of a team and executing, as well as conceptualizing?
  • Can the person lead? Manage? Suppress the instinct to flee when things go south?
  • Does the person have a sense of humor? Does he or she have strong views without floating into the sea of egomania?
  • Can they work with people from the other political party?
  • Are they brittle or resilient? Can they read people and re-spond appropriately?
  • Are they still capable of hard work and not burnt out after the demands of recent efforts?

If the answers to these are all - or mostly - "yes," and if the person can provide contacts from the campaign, the media, someone in government, and someone in the private sector who will swear to their qualifications, then, by all means - they could be fabulous.


Eric Bovim
CEO, Gibraltar Associates
Former journalist who leads many Fortune 500 accounts. He was named to PRWeek's "40 Under 40" in 2008

Is a campaign guru also a corporate communications guru? I am not convinced that political campaign ex-perience makes for a gold-plated résumé at an agency.

By their nature, political campaigns are single-minded affairs: the objective is to beat an opponent. The focus is on tactics - and fanatical execution of them. Granted, political heavyweight strategists such as Ken Mehlman, who managed President Bush's reelection in 2004, bring considerable strategic talents. But the people lower down on that campaign roster can hardly say they offer an agency the same skill set.

I've spent the better part of my professional career here in Washington. Part of that time was spent as the communications director for a US senator, although I wasn't involved in his campaign.

Looking back now, my time on the Hill isn't what I draw from for any great knowledge or insight into the communications industry. Instead, I look back to my time as a reporter working for Reuters and Dow Jones in Madrid, outside of the Beltway, learning the industry from the perspective of an international journalist. I leverage that experience on behalf of my clients to ensure their stories resonate in the right places at the right times.

Agency life revolves around two important totems: managing clients and securing results. Agency-client relationships must be nurtured for long- term success and growth. Some of the most successful veterans in this business have retained clients for upward of two and three decades. That kind of loyalty is earned through strategic planning and careful execution, which, in politics, is often sacrificed for expedience.

Someday, as political campaigns increasingly come to rely upon more sophisticated tools and strategies to win elections, this question might become harder to answer.

Political veterans are always in demand and offer tremendous insights. Their minions, however, should not confuse their tenure on the trail with a ticket to the front of the job line in PR.

Setting aside the political nature of work on the campaign trail, the experience of dealing with the unique pressure of that arena will surely boost anyone's credentials for an agency job, no matter the sector in which they specialize

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