Out of power in Washington, a group of GOP operatives answered the call for help when the Red River flooded...
Mark Pfei%uFB02e and James Davis were %uFB01nishing up a Friday night dinner at Ted’s Montana Grill when an old friend from North Dakota called to say a private jet was waiting at Dulles Airport. The Red River was %uFB02ooding the upper plains states, and there was work to be done—not with sandbags and buckets, but with their hard-earned political skills. Pfei%uFB02e and Davis %uFB01nished dinner, let their league basketball team know they wouldn’t make it that night, and began making some calls of their own.
By the next morning, they had gathered a team of veteran Republican staffers and operatives and were back out on the trail, so to speak, shaping media and messaging in a decidedly non-political setting. “What we were trying to do is take the things we used reaching out to potential voters, take those same skills and reach out to anybody to tell them how they could help,” Pfei%uFB02e says. That Friday night scramble kicked off not long after the sun had set on many of their careers as in%uFB02uential Washington Republicans. The former aides to President George W. Bush and GOP convention of%uFB01cials were just settling into their new Friday night routines in the nation’s capital—a city which they had once run, but where by early 2009 they were almost second-class citizens.
With Bush history and Team Obama enjoying the %uFB01rst days of its honeymoon, Pfei%uFB02e and his friends had traded in their big of%uFB01ces in the Eisenhower Executive Of%uFB01ce Building for nondescript dwellings across the Potomac in Crystal City. Pfei%uFB02e, a longtime operative and former deputy national security adviser, had just taken a job at the consulting %uFB01rm S4 Inc. He had spent years working in the highest echelons of the Republican Party on the campaign trail and in Washington. He received the highest civilian award the Pentagon can give for his work in developing the message that the surge strategy in Iraq was working. But he had also been assigned by the White House to work on a less-successful communications operation: the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Davis, his dining companion, was the deputy press secretary for the 2008 Republican convention, and was, like many Republican operatives, looking for a job at the time. He had a concept for a new model of communications that would allow him to integrate old media with new, but with people in the path of a %uFB02ood, it didn’t seem to be the right time to try it out. Davis mentioned his idea to Pfei%uFB02e anyway. “Mark—being Mark—said, ‘No, this is the perfect time,’” Davis says. “Next thing I know, we’re on a jet to Walker, Minnesota.”
One of their %uFB01rst calls was to the web “guru” from the Republican convention, Chris Brooks, who was also just %uFB01nishing his own dinner that night—he was sitting at Clyde’s in Chinatown. Because he answered the phone, Brooks, who Pfei%uFB02e describes as “scary smart when it comes to Internet applications,” was going to miss a group meeting for his George Washington University master’s course on political communications, taught by Russ Schieffer on Saturday and classes on Monday. Pfei%uFB02e called Jonathan Thompson at about 7:15 p.m. just as the former external director for FEMA was putting his 7-year-old daughter to bed.
Thompson, who had also joined S4, still had not unpacked his FEMA emergency %uFB02y-away bag, Pfei%uFB02e says, so he was able to tuck his kids in, say goodbye to his wife and head off to Dulles. Another S4 consultant, Paul Morrell, who served as NASA’s chief of staff, a National Security Council communications specialist and chief of staff to former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, was at church in Maryland when Pfei%uFB02e called. When Morrell got home, his wife told him that Pfei%uFB02e had called and there was a plane waiting.
The National Weather Service’s prediction of how high the Red River %uFB02ood could get in the Fargo, North Dakota, area was 43 feet. The waters—driven by snow and rain and running over the frozen ground—never hit that mark, cresting at nearly 41 feet on March 28, 2009. That’s 22 feet past %uFB02ood stage. An army of volunteers turned out to %uFB01ll sandbags, reinforce levies and build emergency dikes. What was missing was reliable, accurate and timely information. That’s why conservative talk radio host Scott Hennen called and asked Mark Pfei%uFB02e to help. The pair had known each other since working at radio station KCNN covering another round of %uFB02ooding more than a decade before. In 1997, Hennen kept his KCNN program on the air as %uFB02ood waters from the river surrounded the studio and a %uFB01 re burned a few blocks away.
Pfei%uFB02e was a senior at the University of North Dakota then, and Hennen had spoken to one of his classes not long before the %uFB02oods. The student had reached out to Hennen and FEMA to see how he could help as the river drove people from their homes. After the water receded, the team at KCNN in North Dakota had won an Edward R. Murrow Award for their work. It was also that %uFB02ood which swept Pfei%uFB02e into his career in politics. He took his $1,000 in grant money for displaced residents and moved to Washington.
Now Pfei%uFB02e, a North Dakota native, was coming home and coming full-circle. He brought with him a team that had fought in the trenches for Republicans and had, in some cases, been left holding the bag when the public fallout from Hurricane Katrina came crashing down on anyone in the administration remotely related to FEMA. The goal this time around, Pfei%uFB02e and his team said months later, was to re-invent what talk radio had been doing for years much to the delight of Washington Republicans—take the message directly to the people in rural areas who had little other means of communication.
Instead of getting out the vote, they were getting out the message about where the water was cresting, where sandbags needed to be %uFB01lled. They wanted to combine the old standby of talk radio with new allies like YouTube, Twitter and Flickr. As Pfei%uFB02e puts it, take the 1997 model and “put it on steroids.”
After landing early Saturday morning in Minnesota, they boarded what Pfei%uFB02e describes as a “disco-party bus full of cold pizza and warm Mountain Dew” for the short drive to Chase on the Lake Resort. After convincing 2008 Republican National Convention communications director Matt Burns to drive up from Minneapolis, the team went about setting up a war room. The feel of it took Pfei%uFB02e back to prior political quests. “It was as if one was getting together with your general consultants, your pollsters, your media consultants and your fundraisers and trying to %uFB01gure out how do we sell this,” he remembers. “How do we make this campaign a success?”
Their goal this time was not to excoriate and defeat a Democratic opponent or tilt at windmills like social security reform, but instead to educate scared North Dakotans and Minnesotans about where the water was rising and what they could do to stay safe or to help. Hennen set the team up using the traditional tools supplied by Hennen’s two radio stations—AM 1100 “The Flag” and Eagle 106.9 FM. The political guys added in the new media ventures: a new web site and tools like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. “These guys are rock stars when it comes to campaigns,” Hennen says now. “[And] this was a campaign of sorts, and we had to move quick. The water was rising.”
The structure sprung from what James Davis had seen at last year’s convention in St. Paul. He ran point on the talk radio alley, and he was treated to a host of tutorials about new media tools. “The radio hosts that were really good at the convention had a solid online presence,” Davis says. “The Hannitys of the world will tweet out who their guest is going to be.” That combination of old and new media led him to start thinking about a new model for communications. Davis wanted to take what he saw at the convention to smaller radio stations. With the Red River driving people from their homes, Pfei%uFB02e’s experiences with FEMA and Hennen’s radio stations, the trio had a place and a reason to put the idea into practice.
In 48 hours, the team was able to launch the Flood Channel Network, a website that carried live updates, streaming video and announcements from FEMA of%uFB01cials and city councilmen. North Dakota State University journalism students armed with mobile Flip-cams were able to provide %uFB01rst-hand reporting from the disaster area. “It turned into C-SPAN for %uFB02oods, essentially,” Pfei%uFB02e says.
Brooks, the 23-year-old web guru and presidential scholar at George Washington University, designed the site in lightning fast time. “Basically, the whole philosophy was about using new media and new technology to empower the citizens who were in the disaster zone,” Brooks says.
Their efforts earned them the National Community Service Award from Talkers magazine at the talk radio trade publication’s “New Media Seminar” in June. Now they are looking to take their project national. Hennen says the channel is in talks with Wal-Mart, Verizon, Sprint and State Farm insurance to talk about how their model could work nationwide when disaster strikes. “This thing is just getting off the ground,” Burns says. Jason Griep, a %uFB01eld consultant for State Farm insurance, says what Hennen, Pfei%uFB02e and their team put together “has got the potential to [cover] natural disasters across the country” because its immediacy takes the old model of gathering around the AM radio during times of disaster and bringing it into the new age.
“You can get NFL football on your cell phone—that’s just crazy. We’re all connected, and this is the next wave,” Griep says. “It seems to %uFB01 t so well with what the U.S. is craving. If it happened a day ago, who cares? They want to know if it happened 30 seconds ago.”
Even as they’ve settled back into relative obscurity in Washington and Minnesota, the team is thinking big. With the Flood Channel Network, the former operatives got another taste of battle and a new feel for how they can apply those skills to help everyday people in both red and blue states. Pfei%uFB02e, Thompson and Morrell are vice presidents at S4. Davis started his own public relations company, The Surge Strategies. Burns has since launched Compelem Strategies, a communications %uFB01rm based out of Minnesota.
But what the political operatives who worked during the Red River %uFB02oods did was also about the past. For many of those who %uFB02ew to the %uFB02ood zone, the rising river offered them another chance to ply their trade in an environment where the name George W. Bush didn’t put them at an instant disadvantage. Pfei%uFB02e, who says he “turned out the lights” at the White House on January 17, just three days before President Bush %uFB02ew off to Texas, worked until the very end on NSA efforts in Afghanistan, Iraq and other global hotspots. “And all that just comes to a halt,” Pfei%uFB02e says. “You turn in your ID, you turn in your BlackBerry and you walk out the door. And you really start looking for that next thing where you can make a difference.”
For Burns, who was unemployed at the time, the battle in the %uFB02ood zone was a chance to demonstrate the lessons learned when he was one of the %uFB01rst government operatives to go to the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina. Burns says he knew immediately this time the “dif%uFB01culty and importance of communicating” in a disaster. “Not to mention a very dif%uFB01cult story to recover from” if it goes wrong, Burns says. This time, they saw a “silver lining” in doing things differently.
Pfei%uFB02e was on the president’s team in the aftermath of that storm, as well. He was pulled out of Bush’s social security reform war room after Katrina hit. His mission was to bone up the communications effort when the situation on the Gulf Coast became one of the Bush administration’s largest public relations disasters. There is a difference between Hurricane Katrina and the Red River %uFB02oods, Pfei%uFB02e points out. Going home to help while someone else was in the White House, he says, was the %uFB01rst time in more than a decade he could remember using his skills without someone sending him there to do it.
Sam Youngman is the White House correspondent for The Hill newspaper in Washington.
Fighting the Floods
by Sam Youngman / Sep 01 2009
Out of power in Washington, a group of GOP operatives answered the call for help when the Red River flooded.
Out of power in Washington, a group of GOP operatives answered the call for help when the Red River flooded...