Outsource your digital campaign at your own risk

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A few weeks ago at 4am I woke up to a flood. A pipe had burst in the dead space above my bathroom, collapsing the ceiling and spraying gallons of pressurized hot water into my apartment every minute.

I have to work. I dammed the bathroom door with towels, funneled water into the tub and sink via a Rube Goldberg arrangement of pots and buckets, and used a potty to bail out like a sailor on a sinking lifeboat. Nearly four hours and literally tons of water later, a plumber finally arrived and found the shutoff valve in a locked space next to my house. The flood was over and the cleanup began.

The thing is, I was lucky – I was home. If the pipe had burst a few hours earlier, I would have returned from an evening with friends to an apartment full of water. If this had happened when I was out of town, no one would have known anything was wrong until the flood seeped into the lobby through the walls and under the door. ‘entrance.

I thought of this moment at this month’s Reed Awards conference, where several sessions focused on remote work and the role of consultants. Of course, it makes sense for campaigns to outsource some tasks and get expert help for others. Just about every campaign below the presidential level will leave TV ad production to the pros, for example, along with work like opposition research, polling, and media buying. But some, especially undervoting campaigns, may be tempted to do the same with digital outreach.

Again, some digital tasks, such as making complex ad buys, are often best left to the people who do them every day. Plus, just about any campaign can benefit from the kind of insights that a consulting firm steeped in digital politics will bring. But outsourcing everything digital outreach and communications from a candidate to a consulting company seems dangerous to me, exactly for the reason I got lucky the day I fought a flood.

There is always something wrong with a campaign. Sometimes it’s your fault, like when an unflattering email leaks or a bad old Facebook post surfaces. Sometimes your opponent will do the damage, through more or less valid attacks.

This is when having a digital collaborator in the field can really make a difference. A person embedded in the campaign should have easy access to the candidate and communications staff, allowing them to ensure the rapid response effort utilizes online channels effectively and immediately. They should also be intimately familiar with the campaign messages and the content available for immediate use.

Most consulting firms can act quickly when needed, but they’re still likely some distance from a rapidly changing situation. And if unrest erupts at the height of the election campaign, it can be stretched out at the critical moment. When something goes really wrong, you don’t want to have to wait for your consultant to call you back. You need someone to update Facebook and start a response email this minute.

Ideally, a campaign would cover both angles. One or two employees would take care of day-to-day digital communications, even if they have to split their time between feeding the internet and other tasks. During this time, a consultant or company would help with the overall strategy and take on more complex tasks or tasks requiring specialized knowledge.

But outsource the entire online operation of a campaign? A big risk. One day a flood will come, and you will definitely need someone to fight it. Trust me on that one.

Colin Delany is founder and publisher of the award-winning website Epolitics.comauthor of “How to use the internet to change the world – and win elections”, a twenty-five-year veteran of online politics and a perpetual skeptic. See something interesting? Send him a pitch at cpd@epolitics.com.

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