Obama strategist’s guide to turning a long-shot into a winner

Roger Fisk, veteran of three presidential campaigns, shares wisdom with Irish executives

Renowned political campaign strategist Roger Fisk addressing a group of Irish business leaders at An Post’s Early Bird Club yesterday

Renowned political campaign strategist Roger Fisk addressing a group of Irish business leaders at An Post’s Early Bird Club yesterday

 

When Roger Fisk, a senior election strategist for Barack Obama, did the early Google searches on his man’s chance of getting to the White House, words like “unlikely”, “improbable” and “long-shot” came up.

“We had a start-up mentality,” says Fisk, who was in Dublin to address an An Post Early Bird Club breakfast event attended by senior business people.

“Everyone dismissed us so casually that we were able to take a step back from traditional American presidential politics,” he told The Irish Times.

The Obama team, for which he was National Director of Special Events, threw out the tactical “playbook” that is passed from campaign cycle to campaign cycle. “We just decided to compete everywhere and reach out to everyone. We didn’t have the luxury of leaving anyone out.”

For both new businesses trying to crack a tough market and established companies in need of reinvention, his experiences at the forefront of US politics provide some interesting lessons.

In 2007-2008, the Obama campaign was notably ahead of the game when it came to using online tools to rally offline support, but it also knew how to differentiate itself from its opponent.

“People forget this now but Senator [John] McCain said he didn’t really use email,” Fisk says. By contrast, the Democrats were blessed with a candidate who was “very comfortable wearing a Blackberry on his hip”.

Mitt Romney, four years later, wasn’t much better at online stuff. “The Republican approach to social media, to me, was decidedly 20th century. They looked upon it as a one-way street to push out information, whereas we looked upon it much more as a conversation.”

Fisk’s credo is that “you have got to work like you’re losing”. This was true, too, during John Kerry’s 2004 campaign, which he also worked on, and which did end in defeat. But it was working for Kerry back in 1990 that taught him about the goodwill that can be generated by big events. The then Senator had been involved in the organisation of the first Earth Day in 1970 and had a role in the 20th anniversary event, which culminated in a massive concert in Boston.

“That’s what sent me down the road of just loving the potential of large events, which to me are congregations.”

Now a contractor for the White House - he is going on the road with Michelle Obama in the run-up to the November mid-terms - he is not sure if he has another presidential campaign in him.

“Three presidential campaigns, that’s 12 years. Out of that, it’s six or seven years of my life when I was running round the country with a Blackberry and a suitcase. And that’s a young man’s or a young woman’s game. You can’t do that sort of stuff forever.”