Consulting In Conflict Zones

It’s not often that a robocaller gets kidnapped, but it does happen.

It’s not often that a robocaller gets kidnapped, but it does happen. While Democratic pollster Jeremy Rosner was working with a non-governmental organization in Nepal, one of his field staffers was taken hostage by rebel forces. “Part of getting the person released—what the captors wanted—was a copy of the data we had,” Rosner recalls. Rosner, an executive vice president at Greenberg Quinlain Rosner Research, and his associates handed over the data and got the staffer released. This is the kind of story that you hear more and more often in the consulting world. International work, which started as a venture solely for big-name media consultants and pollsters, has become commonplace—or at least a common opportunity—for campaign operatives across the political spectrum. For all the opportunities, though, there are risks. While consultants can often count on security with their American clients, that’s not always the case abroad. What’s more, opening an international practice—from picking the right clients to making sure the bill is paid—often offers its own adventures. The United States still has more elections than any other country, not to mention a flexible system of financing campaigns (and paying consultants), but it’s clear that the appetite for political consulting abroad has only increased in the past decade. Even in countries with advanced democracies such as Great Britain, political consulting professionals are still a rarity. “Those two factors mean there is a sort of permanent set of professions just like ours that work full-time on elections,” Rosner says.

SAFETY CONCERNSRepublican media consultant Lance Copsey regularly travels to Iraq, where his firm has had a contract with the Iraqi government since 2004. While his work there started off as a joint venture between Iraq and the United States, Copsey—who has also worked in the former U.S.S.R. and Croatia during dangerous times—now directly contracts with the Iraqi government.

Copsey began work on the country’s first constitutional election by building a television studio in the Red Zone and cutting 20 commercials in support of a constitutional amendment. He recalls feeling somewhat scared on his first trip to Baghdad in 2004, just after an American was kidnapped and the video of the hostage circulated. More than five years later, Copsey now sees his trips as safe enough to consider bringing his wife. “It’s a place that you have to take your security very seriously,” he says. “If you’re in any place outside of the Kurdistan region, you have to take your security pretty seriously. The Kurdistan region is pretty safe, but you never want to be the easiest target.” James Fisfis, a GOP pollster who recently merged with Wilson Research Strategies, has worked everywhere from Haiti to Angola and Liberia. While many of his first clients came through the International Republican Institute, Fisfis now works with many different clients around the world on private contracts. His first posting came in 2003, when IRI asked him to serve for a year in Belgrade, Serbia shortly after former Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic started trial for crimes against humanity in the International Criminal Tribunal. After working for decades in a business where he was electing candidates, Fisfis had the opportunity to affect the way a country picked a new government. “After Milosevic, they were looking for something more stable and as history will show, not long after I was there, the prime minister was assassinated,” he recalls of his first posting. Other consultants cited more dire situations: One remembers when an Ebola virus broke out near his site in Africa, while another recalled being threatened by a group of kids while conducting focus group research in Liberia. It’s not always safe to be the person asking questions of local residents, who don’t often get the memo that the consultant’s behavior is condoned by local government or political parties. Field research can be particularly dangerous because of the person-to-person meetings in places where political questions are not always appreciated. “This is politics: If I go up to someone in a different country and ask, ‘Who are you voting for in the next election?’ that’s not always well received,” says one pollster who has worked in several dangerous countries. Veterans of international campaigns note that media consultants often advise in much more diplomatic situations, while several polling professionals interviewed for this story described traveling to do face-to-face interviews in less safe regions. Communications professionals can do much of their international consulting from the comfort of their own home. Trevor S. Fitz-Gibbon, a media consultant for several liberal interest groups and international clients, is currently working with a group of students seeking to overthrow the regime in Iran. While the work may be dangerous for his clients, FitzGibbon never leaves the safety of his home computer screen. “No overhead, no big office,” he says. “People are armed with their laptops and their Blackberries, and they’re able to get press around the world...but I’m not inside Iran. I work to help people inside Iran who remain anonymous, who mobilize dissent against the regime.” FitzGibbon says he felt like he was in more danger when he was the lead spokesman for, the liberal online activist group. Nonetheless, he says he’s not afraid of meddling in international affairs or diplomacy efforts (or lack there of) between the United States and Iran. “First of all, I love controversy,” FitzGibbon says. “Second of all, helping students inside of Iran who are protesting the Iranian regime. If that’s controversial, I like that. I see it as helping democracy.”

PICKING CLIENTSThe level of danger for any international consulting gig depends largely on two factors: the client and the region. That’s why well-respected international consultants have thorough research operations to examine their potential jobs. The most prominent firms with international practices turn down clients on a regular basis. Rosner makes it clear that his firm intends to work with clients who are in line with the consultants’ own political values. The firm’s partners often have “a vigorous internal discussion” about which clients fit that bill. The firm also reaches out to allies in the foreign policy community to make sure they’re signing on the right client.

“There have been people who have approached us, who we find objectionable for many reasons, or a lot of people in the U.S. government might find objectionable,” he says. “And we don’t work for those people.” There’s a great deal of gray area, as well, when firms work with international clients who deal with the United States government. As private actors, firms aren’t restricted from working with such clients—but it sets up a conflict with current Congressional clients or potential future domestic clients. For example, the California-based GOP media and communications firm, Dresner Wickers and Associates, has counted both former presidential candidate and Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former President Boris Yeltsin of Russia as clients. When Copsey started working for a member of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank in 2005, his colleagues—and even some Israeli friends—were supportive of his new client. Copsey worked with a local television station in the West Bank to expand their broadcasting capabilities just after Hamas won the elections. “I think everyone really saw our work as helping,” he says. “My Israeli friends saw it as helping a more secular, moderate organization and helping promote a more moderate influence in politics within the Palestinian population.”

THE FINANCIAL REWARDSThere is no doubt that international political consulting is still profitable, and a solid overseas practice usually adds depth and diversity to a firm’s business model. But as several consultants noted, it’s not as profitable as many think it is. 

First, consultants typically must acquire a certain cachet before the prime international clients start busting down the doors with high-dollar offers. Several prominent consultants who have thriving international practices have a track record of working with a presidential candidate: Democratic media consultant Joe Trippi for former Gov. Howard Dean’s White House bid, Democratic pollster Joel Benenson for President Obama’s campaign and Terry Nelson with former President George W. Bush’s political team in 2004. “James Carville has also done a ton of it, and it also came after the Clinton race,” says Democratic pollster John Anzalone, who has done work in the Ukraine. “Some of the cachet is being involved in some of the winning presidential—or just a presidential, as well.” While it’s not uncommon for consultants to pitch international business, many say the best clients typically approach them first. For Republicans, it’s often through IRI. For smaller political operations, which have not been a principal on a national campaign, there’s much time and effort to be invested in an international practice. In addition to his work with former President Bill Clinton, Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg famously has advised several heads of state around the world, including former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Nelson Mandela in South Africa and Israel’s Ehud Barak. But that kind of top-level clients tend to come to consultants who have already made a name for themselves. Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research has one of the most burgeoning international practices in the business, which according to company spokesman Jaclyn Macek, now comprises one-third of the survey firm’s total business. The firm opened an office in Buenos Aires, Argentina, this year that it is currently staffing, plus another ten employees dedicated solely to international work in Washington, D.C. Rosner runs the company’s international sector, among other departments, and has traveled to dozens of countries including Columbia and Afghanistan to perform survey research. He called his practice “a very significant part of our business” that has spanned more than 80 countries in its existence. The polling mega-firm started focusing more seriously on its international practice in the 1990s. “I don’t think we do this so much because it’s a business model, but certainly why I do it and why Stan does it, is because we’re committed to a certain kind of progressive politics both here and abroad,” Rosner says.

THE FINANCIAL DANGERSFor firms without an office abroad, however, international work is often a pricey investment. “For me, at the beginning, it was doing it for the experience and it was fun,” Anzalone says. “It can be lucrative, but like anything else in your business, it’s something you have to make an investment in.”

Several consultants say that the practice is often more lucrative for media consultants than pollsters. Polling firms have significant overhead costs—especially because most international surveys are done in person instead of on the phone as in the United States. Anzalone says he does not typically pitch international clients and instead they seek out his firm. “The myth is that there’s bunch of dollar signs involved in it, and that’s not always the case,” he adds. Even in cases where clients lure consultants in with lavish offers, veterans of the international scene say all that glitters is not gold. Often less experienced consultants see unlimited opportunities and profits, particularly in countries that don’t have strict disclosure and fundraising regulations for elections. But, as the more seasoned consultants have discovered, the allure of stacks of dollars—or foreign currency—does not always pay off. “Just imagine a country without rule of law to enforce your contract,” Fisfis says. “I know a lot of people who are dazzled by the offers, but disappointed by the follow through.” Copsey learned the hard way that it’s sometimes hard to cash in on international consulting. Declining to name the client or the country, Copsey says he lost about “six figures” when a client recently wouldn’t pay up for his consulting fee and out of pocket costs. Since that incident, he says he’s found a legal solution to ensure that does not happen again. “That last invoice has got to be sent well ahead of Election Day,” Copsey says. “That’s sort of the nature of campaigns in the United States. It’s sometimes hard to collect the last little bit of money as it’s earned. And it’s doubly true overseas.” Copsey manages his firm’s international work, which typically includes communications consulting around the world, including Iraq. He boasts that he knows more about Iraqi public opinion than anyone else. The firm’s work in Iraq was not nearly as profitable in the beginning as it is now, Copsey says. “When we first started, we were really sort of doing it for the cause of reparation and freedom there,” he says. But, he adds: “I don’t think we would have been there now for six years if we were losing too much money.”Shira Toeplitz covers the campaign industry for CQ-Roll Call.

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