If It's Time to Split, Do It Right

If It's Time to Split, Do It Right
Consultant-candidate breaks are inevitable, but some are downright embarrassing to our profession.

We’ve already seen some major conflicts between candidates and staff this presidential cycle. Whether it was Newt Gingrich’s team jumping ship for Rick Perry, Ed Rollins trashing his former candidate Michele Bachmann, or the scathing post-resignation press release sent out by Bachmann’s New Hampshire staff, there have been several high profile spats pitting behind-the-scenes operators against in-the-spotlight candidates.

Leaving a campaign is never an easy decision, but there is a right way and a wrong way to do it.

The bond between campaign staff, consultants and candidates is typically strong. Time spent together in the trenches builds a certain camaraderie that’s rare in most other lines of work outside of the Armed Forces. But it doesn’t mean that consultants and staff aren’t often faced with tough decisions about leaving. When it does come to that, there are three principles that should guide the ethical exit from a campaign.

First, make sure your cause to leave is legitimate. If you’re considering leaving a campaign mid-cycle, you need a good reason. A campaign headed to an ignominious defeat is not a valid reason to jump ship. A better job offer in a more glamorous race? Not good enough, either.  

When you join a campaign—much like a marriage—it’s for richer or poorer. The top priority must always be the client’s well-being. The candidate places his or her trust in staff, and as operatives it’s imperative we don’t break that trust.

Second, make sure your departure does not become the story of the campaign. There are times when it’s clear you can no longer serve the client in the way they deserve. These are legitimate times to leave. Maybe the cause of departure is a family situation; maybe it’s a fundamental disagreement with the direction of the campaign or the behavior of the candidate. When situations like these compromise your ability to do the job you were hired to do then you should consider leaving.

But having a legitimate reason to leave still isn’t enough. It’s important to make sure the method of your departure doesn’t hurt your client. A consultant or campaign manager leaving doesn’t just impact the day-to-day function of the campaign, it becomes a major news story. That brings me to the third and final principle: keep quiet and avoid post-exit conflicts.  

There needs to be a discussion between the remaining campaign team and the departing consultant about what each side will say when asked. This is where the expectations must be clear, because more often than not it’s where issues arise.

A written statement from each side that’s agreed upon in advance and used whenever either side is asked by the media about parting ways tends to work best. That way the campaign knows exactly what the former operative will say and the operative can be confident the campaign won’t place the blame on him or her after leaving.

Lastly, if you want to ensure an ethical departure, make sure you truly leave the campaign. This means you absolutely cannot turn around and work for an opponent, talk to the media about the race or participate in the campaign at all. None of the aforementioned departures we’ve seen this cycle abide by these principles.

The promise of working on a campaign extends through the end of that cycle and jumping to work for an opponent is—at least in my book—a large ethical lapse. Even if you were mistreated by a candidate, you already picked a team for the cycle and jumping to another horse creates longer term problems, not just for yourself, but also for our business.

Just imagine if clients thought their managers or consultants were liable to leave for another campaign when things got rough. The bonds of trust that are necessary for a properly functioning campaign would dissolve. No longer would the candidate be likely to share with you his or her vulnerabilities or problems for fear you would use them against him or her in the future.

One of the most cringe-worthy moves from former campaign staff is talking to reporters on background to dump sordid details of their candidate’s past or their behavior on the campaign trail. Not only are such staffers breaking a bond of trust with their former employer—they don’t even have the courage to put their name to it.

The staffer sourced as an “operative close to the campaign” or “former staffer” who does nothing but attack their former boss is an all-too common sight in campaign stories. There is no place for it in this business. Even if you were wronged, it’s far better to just move on to the next race.

Simply put, if you do this to one former employer, the next employer should be apprehensive about trusting you.

Like ending a marriage the candidate-consultant divorce is often messy and ugly, but how it’s handled will not just affect the end of the campaign. A well-executed exit can save the campaign, as well as the staffer’s reputation. And in our business, that’s really everything.

Mark Harris is managing partner of Cold Spark Media. He served as Sen. Pat Toomey’s (R-Pa.) campaign manager last cycle.

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